Senate must do its job on judicial nominees in 2019

Two years into his presidency, Donald TrumpDonald John TrumpTrump mocks wind power: 'When the wind doesn't blow, just turn off the television' Pentagon investigator probing whether acting chief boosted former employer Boeing Trump blasts McCain, bemoans not getting 'thank you' for funeral MORE has inflicted unimaginable damage on the federal judiciary. With 85 appointments, including two to the Supreme Court, Trump has packed the courts with conservative ideologues hostile to civil rights. His 30 appointments to the all-important appellate courts broke records and represent more than half of President Obama’s appellate appointments in eight years.

However, more damage can be done because Trump has over 150 vacancies to fill. If the past is prologue, we will see a breathtaking lack of diversity and competence in his future nominees. Trump has nominated only three African-Americans — none to appellate courts and no black women to any court. Six Trump nominees have received “not qualified” ratings from the American Bar Association.

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Hostility to racial justice appears to have become a prerequisite for nomination. We have seen nominees who have praised the KKK, have strong ties to white supremacists, and some even refusing to acknowledge Brown v. Board of Education was correctly decided. One nominee could not say whether voting discrimination still exists. Several more defended state-sponsored voter suppression around the country.        

Unless and until Trump leaves office, the Senate remains our only hope. Under the Constitution’s “advice and consent” power, senators are required to turn back Trump nominees unworthy of lifetime appointments. But the GOP-led Senate has been derelict in this duty. Only Sen. Tim ScottTimothy (Tim) Eugene ScottSenate votes to confirm Neomi Rao to appeals court Breaking down barriers for American military families Top House Dem dismisses reparations as 2020 candidates endorse idea MORE (R-S.C.) has taken a stand against two nominees with horrific records on racial justice.   

Before the holiday recess, Sen. Scott exercised his constitutional prerogative to say no to Thomas Farr, who was nominated to a North Carolina court. He took similar action earlier in the year by objecting to Ninth Circuit nominee Ryan Bounds because of his racist writings in college.     

Sen. Scott derailed Farr’s nomination, and his public opposition caused several other Republican senators to express their reservations. Sen. Scott reinforced his objections in a strong letter to the editor of the Wall Street Journal, admonishing the Senate to “stop bringing candidates with questionable track records on race.” Scott advised the GOP to embrace the power of unity, stating: “… If the Senate votes on a candidate that doesn’t move us in that direction, I will not support him or her. Our country deserves better.”     

Sen. Scott is right. We deserve better than Thomas Farr. That is why the NAACP led the fight against him. Our North Carolina state conference was all too familiar with his decades-long efforts to deprive African-Americans of their voting rights. We knew of his connections to white supremacists and segregationists. Busloads of NAACP members from North Carolina traveled to Washington to lobby against his nomination.   

The Farr nomination provides a classic example of why the Senate must rigorously scrutinize nominees. At his Judiciary Committee hearing, Farr was questioned for all of 12 minutes. The Senate has eliminated longstanding practices designed to thoroughly vet those nominated for lifetime appointments. Overriding home-state senators’ objections, scheduling hearings without American Bar Association ratings, packing multiple nominees into one hearing, and holding hearings during congressional recess all are intended to minimize scrutiny. In Farr’s case, information revealed after his hearing showed he personally engaged in intimidating black voters during Jesse Helms’s Senate campaigns. On the eve of the vote, a Justice Department memo was disclosed identifying Farr as the “coordinator” of voter suppression targeting African-Americans.    

These revelations, combined with the rest of Farr’s record, proved too much for Sen. Scott. But Thomas Farr should have alarmed every GOP senator. Ensuring a fair, qualified and diverse judiciary should not be a partisan decision. Senators are entrusted by the American people to act as a check on presidential appointments to the bench. That duty is not excused merely because the president shares the same political party. Sen. Scott must be commended for drawing a line on nominees threatening progress on racial justice. Importantly, he set an example for the rest of the GOP.   

Dr. Martin Luther King famously said, “The time is always right to do what is right.” GOP senators should heed this advice in the 116th Congress. For two years, they have confirmed some nominees who were the least qualified, most racist and least diverse in modern history. Now, Sen. Scott has shown them a different path, one that can help assure the public that our courts are indeed committed to equal justice under law. On behalf of the entire nation, we implore them to follow Sen. Scott’s lead.

The country and the courts must always come before party.     

Derrick Johnson is the president and CEO of the NAACP, America’s largest civil rights organization. Follow him on Twitter @DerrickNAACP.