Black Dems stunned by Senate hearing on Obama judge pick

Black House Democrats say they are stunned by next week's scheduled Senate hearing on a controversial judge nominated by President Obama for the federal bench.

Many liberals, notably members of the Congressional Black Caucus, have been up-in-arms over Obama's nomination of Georgia Court of Appeals Judge Michael Boggs, whose previous record as a state legislator has outraged civil rights groups, women's advocates and gay and lesbian organizations.

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The Senate Judiciary Committee announced Thursday that Boggs will be one of seven judicial nominees to appear before the panel next Tuesday. But with the House on recess all next week, CBC members expressed frustration Friday that they won't be in town to protest Boggs's testimony.

"The opposition's still there, and it's been clear, and … I know there's been talk about some members coming back next week to go over to the Senate," said Rep. Emanuel Cleaver (D-Mo.), former head of the CBC. "But nobody expected this to happen, so people end up making travel plans and working in their districts. So it's going to be difficult getting people back."

Cleaver said the CBC was given "not a morsel" of warning that the hearing was coming.

"But all that's going to do is create a higher level of anger at the fact that the Judiciary Committee is even going to be holding [the hearing]," Cleaver added.

Other CBC members, including Rep. James Clyburn (S.C.), the third-ranking House Democrat, said they were also caught off guard by the coming hearing.

"I had no idea," Clyburn said.

Committee spokeswoman Jessica Brady said Friday that Chairman Patrick Leahy (D-Vt.) "welcomes written testimony from anyone who has first-hand knowledge of a nominee’s fitness to serve as a judge."

"The chairman also welcomes the attendance of any member ... at this public hearing," Brady said in an email.

Brady said Leahy has been working with senators from both parties to schedule the hearing. 

Obama in December nominated Boggs to the U.S. District Court in Atlanta as part of a package deal he cut with Georgia GOP Sens. Saxby Chambliss and Johnny Isakson to fill vacant judicial posts across the state.

The news was immediately denounced by most of Georgia's Democratic delegation, including Reps. John Lewis, David Scott and Hank Johnson, all members of the CBC, who held a press conference with civil rights leaders just days later at Atlanta's Ebenezer Baptist Church, where Martin Luther King, Jr., once presided.

The Democrats have condemned Boggs's track record as a former member of the state legislature, where he backed bills to bar gay marriage, restrict abortion rights and keep the Confederate battle emblem on the Georgia state flag.

Five months later, Scott remains a fierce and vocal opponent of Boggs's ascension to the federal bench, a lifetime appointment, and Johnson said this week that he'll be lobbying members of the Judiciary panel to oppose the nomination.

Lewis, a key figure of the civil rights movement, has been much more quiet. Asked Friday about the Judiciary hearing, he declined to comment except to suggest the issue is one for the Senate to decide.

"We have our hands full on this side," he said.

After December, Boggs's nomination was stalled for months while Leahy awaited "blue slips" from Chambliss and Isakson. That system is a courtesy to home-state senators, who are asked to submit a "blue slip" on nominees before the Judiciary panel stages a hearing – a signal of support for a nominee's consideration, though not necessarily a commitment to back the nominee on the Senate floor.

Chambliss and Isakson submitted their blue slips last week, setting the stage for Tuesday's Judiciary hearing. Sen. Richard Blumenthal (D-Conn.) is slated to preside, as Leahy often shares the gavel with other members. 

Notably, Blumenthal is one of the few senators to have weighed in on Boggs, saying in February that his voting record in Georgia raises "legitimate and important questions" about his fitness for the post.

Meanwhile, the White House continues to back its controversial pick, with White House spokesman Eric Schultz saying Thursday that "the President believes he is qualified for the federal bench."

"Of all the recent criticisms offered against Michael Boggs, not one is based on his record as a judge for the past 10 years," Schultz said.

Leaders of the Judiciary panel sometimes choose to expedite the nomination process by packaging candidates into a single voice vote. But any member of the panel can request a separate vote on an individual nominee, as will almost surely be the case with a controversial figure like Boggs.

If he's approved by the committee, the full Senate could vote on him later in the month.