Civil rights icon blasts Obama nominee

Rep. John Lewis (D-Ga.) came out in strong opposition Monday to one of President Obama’s most controversial judicial nominees, saying Georgia Judge Michael Boggs’s track record on civil liberties, gay issues and women’s rights makes him unfit for the federal bench.

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“His record is in direct opposition to everything I have stood for during my career,” Lewis said in a statement.

Lewis had been one of the earliest critics of Boggs, staging a December protest with civil rights leaders at Atlanta’s Ebenezer Baptist Church just days after the White House announced the nomination.

Since then, however, Lewis, a legend of the civil rights era who had his skull fractured by Alabama state troopers during 1963’s “Bloody Sunday” march, had gone largely silent on the issue, leading to questions of whether he’d changed his tune and was backing Obama on the issue.

That speculation grew on Sunday, when Sen. Dianne Feinstein (D-Calif.), a member of the Senate Judiciary Committee, said she’d recently spoken with Lewis about Boggs, and suggested she’d support the pick based on that conversation.

“I have great respect for John Lewis, who felt that this was a good ticket,” Feinstein said on CNN’s “State of the Union” program.

Those comments led Rep. David Scott (D-Ga.), Congress’s most vocal critic of Boggs, to offer a rare and scathing rebuke of Lewis, a fellow Georgian and among the most revered figures on Capitol Hill.

“If this is true, then Rep. Lewis is a turncoat who has betrayed African Americans, women and gays,” Scott tweeted Sunday.

Lewis’s statement Monday appeared crafted as much to defend himself against Scott’s remarks as it was to criticize Boggs, though he did not specifically mention Scott or his criticism.

“I have fought long and hard and even put my life on the line for the cause of equal rights and social justice. My commitment to these ideals has never changed, and my record is solid and unwavering,” Lewis said.

“I take a backseat to no one and have been at the forefront for decades in defense of the right to marry, a women’s right to choose, and the imperative of non-violence as a means of dissent. … I am not about to change that position now.”

As a member of the House, Lewis won’t have the chance to vote on Boggs to ascend to the U.S. District Court in Atlanta. But all eyes have been on his assessment in recent days, as a handful of Democratic senators – including Majority Leader Harry Reid (Nev.) and Majority Whip Dick Durbin (Ill.) – have said they wanted to talk to the civil rights icon before deciding if they’ll back the controversial nominee.

Lewis’s strongly worded statement – in which he accused Boggs of “misrepresenting” his record during a Senate Judiciary Committee last week – could very well decide Boggs’s fate, as it’s given those already skeptical senators yet another reason to oppose Obama’s pick.

“The testimony suggests Boggs may allow his personal political leanings to influence his impartiality on the bench,” Lewis said.

Boggs’s nomination came as part of a package deal Obama cut with Georgia GOP Sens. Saxby Chambliss and Johnny Isakson to fill vacant judicial posts across the state. But it led to an outcry from liberals on and off Capitol Hill, who have condemned Boggs’s track record as a former member of the state legislature. 

The critics have focused their attacks on Boggs’s support for bills to bar gay marriage, restrict abortion rights and keep the Confederate battle emblem on the Georgia state flag – all issues brought up repeatedly by critical Democrats during last Tuesday’s Senate Judiciary hearing.

“There is a question, I think, among many of my colleagues, whether … an activist conservative can become a judge that is not an activist judge,” Feinstein said Tuesday.

The White House, meanwhile, has continued defending its pick in the face of the liberal uproar. White House press secretary Jay Carney said last week that Boggs should be assessed, not based on his time in the state house, but on his more recent tenure as a state judge.

“Based on Judge Boggs’s 10-year track record as a state trial and appellate court judge, the president believes he is qualified for the federal bench,” Carney said.

It’s unclear when the Judiciary panel will vote on Boggs, as panel members still have until Tuesday to ask additional questions of the nominee. 

Meanwhile, Judiciary Chairman Patrick Leahy (D-Vt.) has emphasized that the deal cut between Obama and Georgia’s senators is no indication his panel is ready to rubber-stamp anybody.

“[T]here is no such thing as a binding deal that negates each Senator’s responsibility to determine the fitness of a judicial nominee for a lifetime appointment,” he said.

This story was posted at 2:54 p.m. and updated at 8:09 p.m.