In Georgia, Barack Obama’s GOP judicial nominee is more than an ad for Ancestry.com

A catchy name, Dax Lopez. There’s more to it than you might think.

In 2013, President Barack Obama attempted to fill a slot on the Northern District of Georgia bench by picking a Democrat conservative enough to pass muster with our state’s two Republican senators.

In the end, the nomination of state Court of Appeals Judge Michael Boggs, a former state lawmaker, was blocked by Democrats troubled by his past votes against abortion, gay rights and removing the Confederate battle emblem from the state flag.

In July, in a second attempt to fill the vacancy, the White House changed tactics, settling on a Republican who could pass muster with Georgia Democrats.

This is Dax Lopez, who was appointed five years ago to a DeKalb County state judgeship by Republican Gov. Sonny Perdue. At age 34, no less. As his name might suggest, Lopez was born in Puerto Rico. He would be the first Latino in Georgia appointed to a lifelong position on the federal bench — if he survives U.S. Senate confirmation.

Last week, the first serious efforts to torpedo Lopez’s nomination surfaced. This time, they are Republican in origin.

As a state judge, Lopez is an elected official. In Georgia. And as stated before, he’s Latino. His sin: his board membership with the Georgia Association of Latino Elected Officials.

“Judge Lopez’ 11 years of service on behalf of [GALEO] would suggest prejudice towards law-abiding citizens and law enforcement across this county,” Cobb County Sheriff Neil Warren wrote in letters addressed to U.S. Sens. Johnny Isakson and David Perdue.

“GALEO has called for law enforcement to turn a blind eye towards criminals that have illegally penetrated our borders and then perpetrated crimes against the very citizens I am sworn to protect.”

Gwinnett County Sheriff Butch Conway has also cited Lopez’s membership in GALEO — the group opposed the state’s 2011 signature anti-illegal immigration law — as a disqualifier.

Phil Kent, the CEO of InsiderAdvantage, a political news website, also questions Lopez’s credentials as a member of the GOP. “Waving a magic wand and sprinkling pachyderm powder over Lopez didn’t automatically make him a ‘Republican,’ ” wrote Kent, a member of the state Immigration Enforcement and Review Board.

But given that Lopez has been pinned with a GOP label, it has become the job of one of Georgia’s top Republican lawyers to mount a public defense of the Obama nominee.

“The idea that to be a judge you have to have gone through your career without being active in any groups interested in the law and legal process is absurd. That is the wrong way to look at a judicial candidate,” said Robert Highsmith, a partner at the Holland and Knight law firm in Atlanta. Highsmith was on the governor’s Judicial Nominating Commission that approved Lopez’s appointment to the DeKalb judgeship.

In a season of Donald Trump and talk of mass deportations, opposition to Lopez is also worrisome to Republicans attempting to expand their party’s demographic reach.

Lopez’s Internet footprint is scant. In a 2012 interview posted online, the DeKalb state judge discusses the anti-illegal immigration bill passed by the Legislature the year before. “House Bill 87 was a bill that was intended to drive out the illegal populations of Georgia — those individuals who are here without documentation,” he said.

He continues with a neutral discussion of the law’s implications, but he also addresses the benefits of a multicultural background. “I understand that there are cultural differences that we have to contend with in court, that sometimes the person I’m talking to might not understand the concepts — not the words, but the concepts that that I’m trying to relate to them,” Lopez told his interviewer.

The website of the Federal Election Commission indicates that Lopez has made no contributions to candidates in federal races. A state-based search turns up only one: A $125 check written in 2006 to state Rep. Kathy Ashe, an Atlanta Democrat. Which can be easily explained away: Ashe was the wife of a partner in the law firm where Lopez worked at the time.

This isn’t the conduct of a closet Democrat. But it is the mark of a Republican officeholder who must be elected countywide in Democratic DeKalb. Low-profile or no-profile is the way to go.

As befits a man about to undergo U.S. Senate scrutiny, Dax Lopez has abandoned social media. His final postings on both Twitter and Facebook date to last September. The messages were identical.

L’shanah tovah!” he wrote. Which is Hebrew, not Spanish — a new year’s greeting for Rosh Hashanah.

Wait — didn’t I mention that Dax Lopez is both Latino and Jewish?

When going before the Senate Judiciary Committee, credentials are important. So is biography. Senators, just like real people, love a good story. Lopez has one. It dates to the 15th century.

“Dax’s ancestry is Spanish. During the Inquisition, a number of Sephardic Jews elected to convert to Catholicism to avoid the rack and the thumbscrew,” Highsmith said. Secretly, they maintained aspects of the old religion.

Lopez arrived in Georgia from Puerto Rico at age 6. By age 12, his family had begun open observance of Jewish rituals and tradition. At age 18, the year he graduated from McEachern High School in Cobb County, Lopez began individual instruction.

At age 20, he underwent a “symbolic” bris. Lopez and his family are members of The Temple in Midtown Atlanta.

Lopez’s genealogy is more than fodder for an Ancestry.com commercial. In the parlance of identity politics, he’s a “twofer.”

Republicans may be divided over whether and how to reach out to Hispanic voters in Georgia. But the Jewish community is a highly valued GOP constituency with clout that extends well beyond the financial.

Those critical of Lopez’s GALEO membership will have to tread carefully. Should they stray into xenophobia, they’ll have two angry constituencies to deal with rather than one.

There is, of course, the small matter of whether a Republican-led Senate will even take up Obama judicial appointments.

Highsmith has his fingers crossed. “I cannot wait for the spectacle of Ted Cruz grilling Dax Lopez about immigration law,” he said.

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About the Author

Jim Galloway
Jim Galloway
Jim Galloway is a three-decade veteran of The Atlanta Journal-Constitution who writes the Political Insider blog and column.
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