Five months after President Barack Obama picked Dax Lopez to be Georgia’s first lifetime-appointed Latino federal judge, his nomination is on the ropes because of the thorny politics of immigration.
Georgia Republican U.S. Sens. David Perdue and Johnny Isakson have yet to sign off on the DeKalb County State Court judge to move forward in the Senate, as Lopez has been under attack from conservative activists for his membership in a Georgia advocacy group that has fought immigration restrictions.
Immigration is a powerful issue for the Republican base, particularly at a time when Donald Trump — he of the mass deportations and the magnificent Mexican border wall — is leading the presidential primary in Georgia and nationally. Perdue campaigned for his first-term win in 2014 opposing any sort of “amnesty” for immigrants here illegally, and Isakson is up for re-election in 2016.
Lopez, meanwhile, sat on the board of the Georgia Association of Latino Elected Officials, which supports a path to citizenship for people here illegally. It also has fought tougher state laws on immigration and praised local sheriffs who refused federal “hold” requests for immigrants.
“There would be a political price to pay for either conservative United States senator, one of them running for re-election, letting it go to the committee process with everything that’s been revealed about GALEO,” said D.A. King, an activist who has led the charge against Lopez.
But the price could come due either way.
“Latinos in Georgia are looking at this very closely,” said Jerry Gonzalez, the executive director of GALEO.
Caught up in Senate process
After Lopez was appointed a judge in 2010 by Gov. Sonny Perdue, he abstained from GALEO’s policy votes and fundraising, Gonzalez said.
Lopez declined to comment while his nomination is pending, but he is making backup plans. Lopez recently launched his re-election campaign for the state court post in 2016.
By custom, home-state senators must approve of a nominee before he or she goes to the full Judiciary Committee, a process known as providing a “blue slip.” Georgia’s senators are noncommittal about Lopez’s future.
“It’s going to be taken up in the Judiciary Committee early next year,” Perdue said.
“We’re in the process of evaluating that whole situation. … I take it very seriously. We have a process with our staff and in Georgia to make sure we do the right thing, both for the people of Georgia and the people who get nominated.”
Isakson added that “we are doing our due diligence.”
Perdue roadblock first seemed unlikely
While both senators say they are still vetting Lopez, and both recently met with the judge, the holdup appears to be coming more from Perdue, who sits on the Judiciary Committee. And even if Georgia’s senators allow Lopez to go to committee, the panel includes Ted Cruz, R-Texas, and Jeff Sessions, R-Ala. — two of the Senate’s biggest immigration hawks — who would likely get tough on Lopez.
At first glance, Lopez seemed unlikely to meet a Perdue roadblock.
The judge is a Republican and a member of the conservative Federalist Society. He volunteered for Bob Barr’s successful run for Congress as a Republican in 1994.
Lopez was first appointed to the Georgia bench by David Perdue’s cousin. And the counsel for Perdue’s Senate campaign, Josh Belinfante, served on the panel convened by the senators to vet potential nominees that sent Lopez’s name to the White House.
Belinfante, state Republican Party counsel Anne Lewis, former state House Majority Whip Ed Lindsey and a slew of other prominent GOP attorneys signed a letter to the senators in support of Lopez in September.
“As conservatives, we recognize that the constitutional obligation of a judge is to decide cases based on the text of the law and not policy preferences,” they wrote. “We know that Judge Lopez views the law the same way.”
In an interview, Belinfante said he stands by the letter but adds of the panel: “We certainly did not have the authority to bind the senators to anything.”
Lopez has avoided policy votes
Lopez, 40, was born in Puerto Rico and moved to Cobb County as a boy. A Vanderbilt University graduate, he rose quickly through the legal ranks and was tapped for the state court judgeship at age 34.
In 2004, he joined the GALEO board. Gonzalez called Lopez a “great strategic thinker” who helped guide the organization, but since he became a judge in 2010, Lopez has focused on civic engagement and leadership development for Latinos — and avoided policy.
Lopez resigned from the board after his July nomination, which Gonzalez said is a “protocol” for federal nominees started when George W. Bush nominated Luis Aguilar to serve on the Securities and Exchange Commission.
King, the founder of the Dustin Inman Society, an anti-illegal-immigration group; and Phil Kent, a conservative pundit and member of the state Immigration Enforcement Review Board; have been the chief instigators against Lopez. Sheriffs from Cobb County and elsewhere have joined them with similar immigration-based concerns.
“I think the nomination is drifting away,” Kent said. “I was obviously gratified to see this outpouring of opposition.”
King said he had gotten the brush-off from Isakson’s office, but Perdue’s staffers were generous with their time.
“I went away with the confidence that this has gone as far as it’s ever going to go,” King said.
Conservatives learn from liberal model
The conservatives have taken a page from the playbook of liberals who kept this Northern District of Georgia post vacant.
In late 2013, after years of back-and-forth, Obama nominated a package of judges to fill several Georgia slots. The most conservative nominee in the bunch was Georgia Court of Appeals Judge Michael Boggs, a former Democratic state legislator from Waycross with socially conservative views who voted to keep the Confederate battle emblem on the Georgia state flag.
Civil rights leaders and groups such as NARAL Pro-Choice America helped turn Democrats against Boggs and torpedo his nomination, while the other six nominees were approved by the Senate. After the new Congress convened, the Georgia senators put together a group of six people to come up with a suitable replacement, and the group sent Lopez’s name to the White House in mid-2015.
In Washington, Senate Minority Leader Harry Reid, D-Nev., and the Democratic-dominated Congressional Hispanic Caucus have publicly pushed the Lopez nomination. But Republicans drive the agenda, and the clock is working against Lopez.
While the Senate has agreed to vote in the coming weeks on five judicial nominees who already have cleared committee, the nomination process typically grinds to a halt in an election year. In this case, the Republicans controlling the Senate can hope for more conservative nominees under the next president.
“When you’re in the eighth year of a two-term presidency and talking about judicial employment, that’s a legacy issue,” Isakson said. “That’s a policy not about a specific judge.”
Glenn Sugameli of Defenders of Wildlife, who works with left-leaning organizations to track judicial nominations, said election-year politics are no excuse to slow-walk a nominee.
“If the Georgia senators really want to say ‘We do not approve this person,’ they should do it, and there’s still time to get someone else in that spot,” Sugameli said. “The most irresponsible thing would be to let this thing linger.”
Support real journalism. Support local journalism. Subscribe to The Atlanta Journal-Constitution today. See offers.
Your subscription to the Atlanta Journal-Constitution funds in-depth reporting and investigations that keep you informed. Thank you for supporting real journalism.