In the middle of a political maelstrom over Georgia’s judicial nominees stands a strapping former defensive tackle whom friends describe as a natural politician with a razor wit.
Judge Michael Boggs, up for a lifetime appointment to the federal bench in Atlanta, has become the face of a dispute joined by liberal groups across the nation. He is one of six nominees the White House negotiated with the state’s Republican U.S. senators, who had blocked President Barack Obama’s picks for years.
Shut out of the negotiations, Georgia’s Democrats have struck back. Their opposition has ignited a fight against Boggs by groups who point to a legislative record too conservative for their taste on four touchy topics: gay rights, abortion rights, separation of church and state, and a vote to keep the Confederate battle emblem on the state flag.
Boggs is now on the Georgia Court of Appeals. But what’s being picked apart is his four-year Georgia House voting record as a rural Democrat from South Georgia in the early 2000s. He finds himself under attack by the groups that most often lead the fight for Obama’s judicial nominees.
“More people are seeing more of the bad stuff he has done,” said state Sen. Vincent Fort, D-Atlanta. “There’s no reason to believe he’s anything other than a right-wing ideologue on voting rights, gay rights or women’s rights.”
Fort said he was aware of Boggs’ leadership behind criminal-justice legislation backed by the state’s civil rights communities.
“But Antonin Scalia does some things every now and then that are good,” Fort said, referring to the conservative U.S. Supreme Court justice. “But, you know, it’s like one out of every 100 things he does.”
Boggs’ defenders point out that his nearly 10-year record as a judge has not been questioned.
“I don’t think it’s fair to judge somebody’s judicial temperament by their votes taken in the House,” said state House Minority Whip Carolyn Hugley, a Columbus Democrat who served with Boggs in the Legislature. “In my view the question is for a judge, does that person have the capacity to look at issues and review them fairly. I think Mike can do that without a problem.”
Boggs, 51, declined to comment for this article, in keeping with common practice for pending nominees.
A standout football player growing up in Waycross, Boggs played offensive and defensive line in high school and defensive tackle at Georgia Tech before a leg injury ended his college playing career. After he lost his football scholarship, Boggs worked nights and weekends to pay his way through college and law school, in jobs that ranged from convenience store clerk to gravedigger.
Boggs has said the defining moment in his life occurred at age 21, when his 47-year-old father died of esophageal cancer. Boggs keeps on his desk the badge (#555) his father wore as an agent for the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco and Firearms.
He graduated from Georgia Southern and Mercer University law school before going into private practice as a trial attorney in the Waycross area, quickly establishing himself as a rising star.
Linnie Darden, a juvenile court judge in Hinesville, said if the people now opposing Boggs’ nomination could meet him and talk to him they’d come to the opposite conclusion. “I’m a lifetime member of the NAACP, the first black judge in my county, and I just don’t agree with that criticism.”
Darden first encountered Boggs at a meeting of local civil rights leaders to discuss the case of an African-American councilwoman in Waycross who thought she was being mistreated. Boggs was there on his own time to offer assistance.
“My first reaction: Run for governor immediately,” Darden recalled. “I thought he was the next Bill Clinton.”
Instead, Boggs ran for the state House and won in 2000. He compiled a voting record in line with white conservative Democrats in the waning days of their control of the Legislature.
He co-sponsored a bill by then-Minority Leader Glenn Richardson that would have pushed for putting the Ten Commandments on county courthouses, authorizing the state attorney general to defend federal lawsuits against such displays.
NARAL Pro-Choice America, in scrutinizing his record, took issue with Boggs’ support for a bill that would have strengthened an existing “parental consent” law and required a parent or guardian to appear with a girl younger than 18 seeking an abortion and show photo ID.
“We’re disappointed that pro-choice President Obama nominated someone who doesn’t share our pro-choice values,” NARAL said in a statement. “We agree with the president on a lot of things, but not this pick.”
Boggs also supported an amendment to the Georgia Constitution banning same-sex marriage.
“Whether you’re a Democrat or a Republican … we seldom have opportunities to stand up for things that are common sense, things that stand up for Christian values,” Boggs said on the House floor.
Attracting the biggest hullabaloo is Boggs’ opposition in 2001 to removing the Confederate battle emblem from the old Georgia state flag. The state House voted 94-82 to change the flag, and Boggs was among those voting against it.
Numerous South Georgia legislators also opposed it, knowing their constituents would not approve the change. Fellow Democratic state Rep. Dubose Porter of Dublin also voted against it. Porter now chairs the Democratic Party of Georgia.
Boggs’ 2001 flag vote helped inspire a December news conference featuring three Georgia civil rights leaders to whom Obama awarded the Presidential Medal of Freedom – the Rev. Joseph Lowery, Rep. John Lewis and the Rev. C.T. Vivian – to denounce the slate of judicial nominees.
The outcry from the left solidified last week in a letter to Democrats on the Senate Judiciary Committee from 27 groups, including heavyweights such as MoveOn.org and the Human Rights Campaign. They said Boggs’ voting record indicated “a troubling lack of concern for individuals whose experience and personal history differ from his own.”
Boggs left the Legislature in 2004 to run successfully for a superior court judgeship in Waycross. Before long he took on the local old boys’ network, in the form of Coffee County Sheriff Rob Smith.
Dwayne Gillis, now the chief judge on the superior court, and Boggs spearheaded a corruption investigation into Smith regarding traffic tickets and prison inmates. Eventually, Smith pleaded guilty to misdemeanor charges for using inmate labor to build political signs, and he resigned from office.
“I watched him put his whole career – really, his whole career – on the line just to do what was right,” Gillis said. “That’s an unspoken-type courage.”
Smith, reached by phone at his home in Ambrose, maintained he did nothing wrong.
“I guess they was just looking for power,” Smith said of Boggs and Gillis.
While in Waycross, Boggs established a specialized drug court, which required new funding from the six counties in the judicial circuit and a different way of thinking about drug offenders.
“In South Georgia, it’s not politically popular to say we’re trying something other than throwing all these drug offenders in prison,” said Kelly Brooks, a lawyer and part-time judge in Folkston. “It was a funding issue and an educational process to go through. It takes someone of his skill and standing to explain to people why it’s important, why it’s a good idea.”
In 2012 Gov. Nathan Deal appointed Boggs to the Georgia Court of Appeals.
Boggs co-chaired a criminal justice reform council that sought ways to curb the skyrocketing cost of the state’s prison system while not compromising public safety. Many of the council’s recommendations to change some of the state’s strict sentencing laws were enacted by the General Assembly.
In a 2012 interview with The Atlanta Journal-Constitution, Boggs spoke against a one-size-fits-all approach to criminal sentencing.
“I was not a liberal judge,” Boggs said. “I just believe as a judge you have the opportunity to weigh credibility of witnesses, to judge the weight of the evidence and some due deference ought to be given to the individual in that situation.”
Boggs is one of four Northern District of Georgia nominees, to go along with two for the 11th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals. The group, carefully negotiated by the White House and the senators, runs the ideological gamut.
Only one member of the group, DeKalb County Judge Eleanor Ross, is African-American. That has rankled Georgia Democrats who are seeking more diversity on the bench.
The Congressional Black Caucus has been pushing for more minority judges in Southern states with large black populations and Republican senators who can use an arcane procedure known as a “blue slip” to block nominees from being considered by the Senate Judiciary Committee.
White House counsel Kathryn Ruemmler this week struck back against the criticism, telling The Huffington Post that the blue slip power wielded by Sens. Saxby Chambliss and Johnny Isakson is “a silent, unaccountable veto.” She added, “Given this constraint, our choice is clear.”
Losing one of the nominees would cause the agreement on all six to crumble, meaning years-long vacancies — one of the District Court openings is from 2009 — would remain unfilled.
“My feeling is and my hope is that (Obama) will see the outpouring” against Boggs, said U.S. Rep. David Scott, an Atlanta Democrat. “I’m not the only one.”
Staff writer Doug Roberson contributed to this article.