Georgia Democrats, civil rights leaders, blast Obama judicial picks

Channel 2 Action News reporter Lori Geary contributed to this report.

A trio of Georgia Democrats joined prominent civil rights leaders in escalating their fight with the White House over judicial nominees Monday, charging that a slate of six nominees for federal court vacancies is not diverse enough.

The unusually heated rhetoric underscored the pushback President Barack Obama faces from one of his core constituencies as he walks a delicate line trying to jump-start long-stalled judicial appointments.

“We question whether this is the kind of legacy you want to leave in the state of Georgia,” said Rep. John Lewis, an Atlanta Democrat, at the gathering at Atlanta’s historic Ebenezer Baptist Church. “It’s not too late to turn this train around. We are asking you to reconsider these nominations, to do what is fair, what is right and what is just.”

Added the Rev. Joseph Lowery, who like Lewis has received a Presidential Medal of Freedom from the nation’s first black president: “We’ve not come to attack the president. Somebody did this for him and we’ve said that he must undo it.”

While the event was rich with emotion and symbolism, the fight is a long shot for the nominees’ foes, who also include Democratic Reps. Hank Johnson and David Scott, and C.T. Vivian, another Medal of Freedom honoree.

Their anger centers on Obama’s decision last week to formally nominate several judges. U.S. District Court Judge Julie Carnes was the pick to serve on the Atlanta-based 11th Circuit Court of Appeals, joining pending 11th Circuit nominee Jill Pryor, an Atlanta attorney.

To fill four Northern District of Georgia slots, Obama nominated Atlanta attorney Leigh Martin May, DeKalb County State Court Judge Eleanor Ross, Georgia Court of Appeals Judge Michael Boggs and Atlanta attorney Mark Cohen.

The selections were based on a deal struck among White House officials and Georgia Republican U.S. Sens. Johnny Isakson and Saxby Chambliss. The Senate confirms presidential nominees, and home-state senators can block judicial nominees from committee consideration.

Chambliss and Isakson had held up Obama nominees for years, until a deal struck several months ago finally broke the impasse.

University of Richmond law professor Carl Tobias, who studies the federal judicial nomination process, said a reversal by Obama would be “unusual.”

“I don’t know how you have a happy resolution at this point, because it’s a package deal: It’s all or nothing,” Tobias said.

Georgia’s U.S. House Democrats had been consulted on past appointments but were shut out of this process, and they were displeased with the result. In particular, they were upset that only one of the six nominees – Ross — is a minority.

Scott, who represents parts of west Atlanta, questioned why the White House was unable to find more black nominees in a city like Altanta.

“We Democrats were completely shut out,” said Scott, who added: “We love the president, and that’s why this hurts so. There’s no hurt like being hurt by the one you love.”

They also lodged objections to Boggs, who cast a vote to keep Georgia’s old state flag — which included an emblem of the Confederate flag — while he was a state senator. And they quibbled with Cohen’s defense in court of Georgia’s voter-ID law, which many view as designed to depress minority turnout. Boggs and Cohen did not return calls and emails seeking comment.

Backers of the senators point out that Cohen, former chief of staff to Democratic Gov. Zell Miller, defended the voter-ID law at the request of Democratic Attorney General Thurbert Baker. Also, they note, Ross was a Republican choice, while Democrats fought for Pryor and May, who are white.

The six nominees will now be vetted by the Senate Judiciary Committee, as Isakson and Chambliss will allow that process to proceed, but it’s unclear how long it will take.

All nominees have hit snags in recent weeks after Democrats infuriated Senate Republicans by changing the chamber’s rules so they could overcome a filibuster against an administration nominee with 51 votes instead of 60. Republicans declined to allow pending nominees to remain into the new year as a courtesy, so Obama would have to re-nominate the Georgia candidates — along with a slew of others — in January.

“What has been done needs to be undone,” Lowery said. “Long after Barack Obama has gone back to Chicago or wherever he decides to go … the judges that he seats on our courts will still be there. They will still be engaged in whatever mischief they can engage.”