By Mike Lillis - 01/26/14 06:00 AM EST
Leaders of the Congressional Black Caucus (CBC) plan to publicly rebuke President Obama over a lack of diversity in his federal judicial picks.
The lawmakers are organizing a Capitol Hill press conference as early as this week to decry what Del. Eleanor Holmes Norton (D-D.C.) called “the appalling lack of African American representation” among Obama's nominees, particularly in the 11th Circuit, which includes Georgia, Florida and Alabama.
“We have very grave concerns [with certain nominees] given disparities that are particularly common in the South,” Norton said Thursday in a telephone interview.
The outcry is a rare public split between Obama and his staunchest allies.
Yet the president’s relationship with black lawmakers on Capitol Hill is more complicated that it sometimes appears.
While the CBC’s underlying support for Obama has been unwavering, many have also expressed disappointment that he hasn't fought harder for the liberal policy priorities that propelled him twice into the White House.
Norton, who heads a CBC panel focused on judicial nominations, said the group has met with other CBC members representing the 11th Circuit states to discuss an opposition strategy to Obama's picks. While “no decisions have been made” about specifics, she said, the exasperation within the CBC is general.
“This is a caucus-wide concern,” she said.
The focus will likely be on Georgia, where most within the Democratic delegation – including Rep. John Lewis, the civil rights icon – have been up in arms since Obama named a handful of nominees for the federal bench just before Christmas.
One of them, Georgia Court of Appeals Judge Michael Boggs, had voted years ago as a state legislator to keep the Confederate battle emblem a prominent part of Georgia's state flag – a move to preserve “one of the most vicious symbols of hate and white supremacy” in the country's history, Rep. David Scott (D-Ga.), a CBC member, charged earlier this month.
Another nominee, Atlanta lawyer Mark H. Cohen, helped to defend Georgia's voter ID law, which the Democrats say is designed to discourage the participation of poor and minority voters at the polls.
“You tell me, how can you have the Justice Department fighting the voter ID, voter suppression law in Texas and at the same time put on the court for life the man who defended that same law in Georgia?” Scott asked, referring to the DOJ’s lawsuit against Texas’s new voter ID law.
Reached by phone Friday, Cohen declined to comment, citing the ongoing nomination process. Boggs did not respond to a similar request.
A third pick, DeKalb County State Court Judge Eleanor Louise Ross – the only African American in the group – has raised the Democrats' eyebrows for a different reason.
“Most of us never heard of her, don't know anything about her,” Lewis said earlier this month, “and I understand she's a Republican.”
The White House did not respond to questions for comment for this story. But last month the administration pushed back against the criticisms, arguing that Obama had nominated an African American woman, Atlanta attorney Natasha Silas, to the federal bench in Georgia in early 2011, only to see her blocked by the state’s GOP Sens. Saxby Chambliss and Johnny Isakson.
The White House said 18 percent of Obama's confirmed judges have been African-American – higher than the 8-percent rate under President George W. Bush and the 16-percent figure under President Clinton.
The defense has done little to comfort CBC members and other civil rights advocates, however. They say neither the Senate's archaic “blue slip” system — which essentially empowers home-state senators to veto judicial nominees — nor Obama's track record excuses the push for an overwhelmingly white court in Georgia, where the road to civil rights was often paved in blood and the black population, at 31 percent, is well above twice the national figure.
“They have the right to nominate someone,” Lewis said. “But black women in Georgia hold a higher [voting] percentage than any group – higher than white women, higher than white men, higher than black men. And there’s a lot of Democratic [black] women – members of the bar – that are very, very good. And they should have been taken into consideration.”
The clash comes as the result of negotiations between the White House, Chambliss and Isakson over federal judgeship nominees in the state.
Last year, the sides reached an agreement wherein the Republicans would drop their opposition to attorney Jill Pryor, one of Obama nominees for the U.S. Court of Appeals for the 11th Circuit, in return for allowing the senators to pick three nominees for the U.S. District Court for the Northern District of Georgia. A Bush appointee, Julie Carnes, the chief judge of the Northern District, would also be elevated to the 11th Circuit as part of the deal.
The nominees must be approved first by the Senate Judiciary Committee, headed by Sen. Patrick Leahy (D-Vt.), and then by the full Senate. No hearing has yet been scheduled on Georgia's controversial picks.
Leahy, true to form, has not weighed in on the controversial picks ahead of their nomination hearings.
Scott said his frustration has much less to do with the policy records of Boggs and Cohen than with the choice by Obama – the nation's first black president – to nominate the pair to positions they’d hold long after the White House has another occupant.
“When you look at what these two men represent, to put them on the court for life …,” Scott said, trailing off.
“Do you think a white president, a George W. Bush, a Republican president – any white president – would appoint these kinds of nominees with the confederate flag background? With the voter suppression background? That White House would have been maimed by people crying out.
“It is a very strange situation,” he said.