Amid pushback, Jarrett to meet black Democrats on Obama's judicial picks

Senior White House adviser Valerie Jarrett will meet with members of the Congressional Black Caucus (CBC) Wednesday amid intensifying concerns over President Obama’s judicial nominations.

Black lawmakers have been up in arms over a number of Obama’s picks for the federal bench, particularly in southern states, where they contend the process doesn't reflect the ethnic diversity of the regions they would serve.

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Many think Obama gave up too much to Republican senators, who also have a say in the nomination process, and plan to tell Jarrett just that in Wednesday’s meeting.

“Win or lose, we’d feel better if there’s a fight,” Rep. Emanuel Cleaver (D-Mo.), a member of the CBC’s judicial nominations working group, said Tuesday. “We have a Herculean task, of course, because of the senators whose conservatism is antithetical to the judicial philosophy of probably anyone who [Obama would prefer]. 

“But at the same time, the president ought to be able to appoint anyone he wants,” Cleaver added. “And, you know, we want the president to fight for it.”

Rep. G.K. Butterfield (D-N.C.), another member of the judicial nominations working group, echoed that message.

“There needs to be more defiance,” he said by phone Tuesday. “The fight is worth it. We learned that from the Civil Rights era. We were defying the traditions. … We were defying the law. … What we want the president to do is push back harder against the [Republican] obstructionism.”

The lawmakers will be meeting with the White House official who is close to both the president and first lady. Jarrett is a longtime friend of the Obamas and has unrivaled access to the first couple among the White House staff.

The controversy surrounding some of Obama’s federal judgeship nominees, which has swirled for months among specific state delegations, has gained strength in recent weeks, as the debate has evolved from the local to the national level.

The CBC members have several different complaints. In Georgia, for instance, the lawmakers say Obama’s slate of six nominees lacks the diversity of a state where almost a third of the population is black. (Only one of the picks is African-American, and she is reportedly a Republican).

Furthermore, they contend that two other nominees have championed controversial policies that should disqualify them from the promotion. One pick had voted as a state legislator to keep the Confederate battle emblem a part of the state flag; another had defended Georgia’s new voter ID law, which Democrats consider discriminatory.

The selections were the product of negotiations between the White House and Georgia’s GOP senators, Saxby Chambliss and Johnny Isakson, who agreed to drop their opposition to Obama’s pick for the U.S. Court of Appeals for the 11th Circuit in return for the right to choose the other three.

Butterfield said the CBC’s message to Obama over the Georgia picks boils down to: “You’ve compromised too much. You’ve essentially capitulated on three seats to get just one.” 

Among the chief critics of the Georgia nominees is Rep. John Lewis (D-Ga.), a hero of the civil rights movement who rarely speaks out against the White House. 

“I’m concerned, and we’re still talking,” Lewis said Tuesday.

There are other complaints with the process. In North Carolina, Butterfield is cheering Obama’s nomination of an African-American woman, Jennifer May-Parker, for the federal bench, while condemning the “blue-slip” system that’s allowed GOP Sen. Richard Burr (N.C.) to prevent her consideration.

Adopted by the Senate Judiciary Committee, the “blue-slip” system is essentially a courtesy to home-state senators, allowing them a voice in the nomination process as it moves through the panel. Under that system, home-state senators are asked to sign off on nominees before the committee holds a hearing — a signal of support for the nominee’s consideration, though not necessarily his or her ultimate appointment.

Senate Judiciary Committee Chairman Patrick Leahy (D-Vt.) has, thus far, stuck to those guidelines, though he’s also warned he might abandon them if it appears Republicans are abusing the system. 

Leahy’s office said Tuesday that neither Isakson nor Chambliss have submitted their blue slips to the panel. 

Isakson spokeswoman Lauren Culbertson said Tuesday that delay was a courtesy to the committee heads.

“Sen. Isakson believes that it is appropriate to allow the chairman and the ranking member on the Judiciary Committee to review the background investigation paperwork of the six nominees before he returns all six blue slips,” she said in an email. 

Chambliss’s office declined to comment.

The White House has defended its nominees, noting that the Obama administration has successfully appointed more black judges than the Bush and even the Clinton administrations. But the argument has done little to appease members of the CBC, who are quick to point out that the judges will remain long after Obama has left the White House.

Butterfield said he’ll push the White House “to insist on an up-or-down vote” on the nominees Obama would prefer, not those demanded by conservative senators — a message he hopes will also reach Senate Democratic leaders who have adhered to the blue-slip system.

Butterfield emphasized that he was speaking only for himself, not the entire CBC, but added, “I think my views would be shared by most, if not all, of the members.”

The CBC gained an ally Tuesday, when House Minority Whip Steny Hoyer (D-Md.) suggested the Senate should reject several of the picks in the name of diversity.

“I certainly share the CBC’s concerns,” Hoyer told reporters in the Capitol. “I would hope that Sen. [Harry] Reid [D-Nev.] and Senate leadership would look to the best interest of the country and the broad spectrum of beliefs in the country represented on the bench.”