By Mike Lillis - 02/05/14 08:21 PM EST
A feud between President Obama and black lawmakers over racial diversity among judges escalated Wednesday.
Valerie Jarrett, the president’s closest adviser, met with Congressional Black Caucus (CBC) members and refused to back down over controversial nominees despite a growing storm of criticism.
In a closed-door meeting with a handful of CBC leaders, Jarrett brushed back the criticism, saying Obama had a “commitment to diversity” and an “outstanding” record in placing minority judges, she said afterward.
Asked if the White House would consider replacing any of its choices, Jarrett’s answer was a terse, “No.”
The message was not well received. CBC members have criticized the nominees who they say champion policies that discriminate against minorities.
Georgia Rep. David Scott (D), said he approached Jarrett about two nominees in particular: one who once supported a state bill to keep the Confederate battle emblem a part of Georgia’s flag, and another who led the defense of the state’s photo ID law, which Scott claims is a statute designed “to keep black folks, as much as possible, from voting.”
“I asked her specifically that they should be [withdrawn]. She just didn’t say anything,” said Scott, who did not attend the briefing on nominees but was present at a later meeting with Jarrett and the full CBC.
“Do you think George Bush would have been able to do this, or any white president would have been able to do this? No,” Scott said. “The president should have said, ‘There’s absolutely no way I want to go down in history as putting these kinds of people into federal court nominations against my own African-American [people]’ ... It’s a tragedy.”
Rep. Emanuel Cleaver (D-Mo.), a member of the CBC’s judicial nominations workforce who attended Jarrett’s nominations briefing, acknowledged that Senate rules have left Obama in a tough spot when it comes to filling the federal bench with his favored picks. But CBC leaders simply want the president to confront his Republican detractors more, he said.
“Our leadership said, ‘Look, we don’t think that there should be any silence when senators reject people for no ... acceptable reason,’ ” Cleaver said. “And so we informed them that we have agreed to no longer allow those nominees to languish in some kind of a neo-conservative purgatory and remain silent and passive. … So we’re going to start speaking out.”
The issue of judicial nominations has put CBC leaders in a tough spot. On one hand, they want to put pressure on the White House to place more ethnic minorities on the federal bench. On the other, they don’t want to highlight the divisions between CBC members and Obama, the nation’s first black president.
Those tensions were on display in the immediate aftermath of Wednesday’s meeting, as CBC leaders sought to paint a rosy picture of the caucus’s reaction to Jarrett’s message. CBC Chairwoman Marcia Fudge (D-Ohio) said Jarrett “pretty much” alleviated her concerns about the judicial picks.
“It was a great meeting,” Fudge said.
Del. Eleanor Holmes Norton (D-D.C.), who heads the CBC’s judicial nominations task force, echoed that sentiment.
“She addressed our concerns,” Norton said.
But that wasn’t the message coming from other CBC members.
“Nobody’s happy,” said Rep. Sanford Bishop Jr. (D), from Georgia. “It’s a messed-up process.”
While the controversy around Obama’s judicial picks has been largely limited to local delegations, the issue has gained broader prominence in recent weeks, with figures such as House Minority Whip Steny Hoyer (D-Md.) weighing in on the side of the CBC.
CBC leaders, including Norton, had threatened last month to highlight the issue further with a Washington press conference pushing back against Obama’s picks. That plan was put on hold, however, and it’s unclear if the media event will be rescheduled.
Some of the key players in the debate were not a part of Wednesday’s judicial nominations discussion with Jarrett. Rep. John Lewis (D-Ga.), for instance, was attending a Ways and Means Committee hearing and said he missed the early topic of judges, though he attended the full CBC gathering later.
The White House, meanwhile, is pushing back hard against the notion that the administration has neglected to promote minorities to the bench. As Jarrett was meeting with the CBC, the White House announced the nomination of five new judicial nominees, including two women, one Hispanic and an openly gay African-American.
The White House also recently launched a new page on its website dedicated entirely to highlighting the diversity of Obama’s judicial nominees.
“This is a constant work in progress,” Jarrett said Wednesday. “We’re very proud of our track record so far, but that doesn’t mean we’re not interested in always looking for new ways the bench can reflect the diversity of our country.”
Scott, who has asked to testify against the Georgia nominees in the Senate, has a much different view.
“This is a terrible mistake, history will record it as such,” he said. “And it breaks my heart that it’s a black president.”