Group advising Ossoff, Warnock on federal appointments includes civil rights activists

Leah Ward Sears, a former chief justice of the Georgia Supreme Court, is heading a 16-member commission that U.S. Sens. Jon Ossoff and Raphael Warnock formed to advise on the selection of nominees for key federal positions in Georgia, such as U.S. attorney.

caption arrowCaption
Leah Ward Sears, a former chief justice of the Georgia Supreme Court, is heading a 16-member commission that U.S. Sens. Jon Ossoff and Raphael Warnock formed to advise on the selection of nominees for key federal positions in Georgia, such as U.S. attorney.

Georgia’s two U.S. senators say they have tapped a diverse group of legal experts, judges and civil rights advocates to advise them on nominations to top federal jobs in the state.

Leah Ward Sears, the former chief justice of the Georgia Supreme Court and the first black woman in America to hold such a title, will chair Sens. Jon Ossoff and Raphael Warnock’s Federal Nominations Advisory Commission. Other members include Jason Carter, former President Jimmy Carter’s grandson and a one-time Democratic nominee for governor; Georgia NAACP President James Woodall; and Andrea Young, the executive director of the American Civil Liberties Union of Georgia and daughter of a former Atlanta mayor.

The members of the commission will review applications for U.S. District Court judges, U.S. attorney and U.S. marshal in Georgia’s three federal districts. There are roughly two dozen positions in all, and Warnock and Ossoff already are looking for people to recommend to President Joe Biden for several vacant or soon-to-be-vacant positions.

In a press release announcing the group’s makeup, Sears said a goal is to ensure that future appointees better reflect the people of Georgia.

“The federal judicial system plays an extraordinary role in cases that impact our fundamental rights,” she said. “For far too long, this system has inadequately represented the great diversity of Georgia and America. I’m honored to lead Senators Ossoff and Warnock’s Commission to bring new, different, and unique perspectives to the federal nominations process and ensure all voices across Georgia are fairly represented.”

Mark this as another consequence of Democrats’ recent electoral success in Georgia. With Biden in the White House and Ossoff and Warnock flipping both U.S. Senate seats blue, there is an opportunity for Democrats to leave lasting marks on the makeup of the state’s federal courts and related law enforcement agencies.

Buddy Darden, an attorney and former congressman, served as chairman of the committee that was formed during President Barack Obama’s administration. But Darden and the rest of the commission’s members constantly saw their recommendations be embraced by the White House only to be rejected by Georgia’s two senators, who were both Republicans. The most high-profile example was State Court Judge Dax Lopez, who was blocked from being appointed to the U.S. District Court in Atlanta by then-Sen. David Perdue.

That will no longer be the case because whoever the commission recommends to Ossoff and Warnock is also likely to earn the support of the president.

“Whatever names the senators send in are going to be the judges,” Darden said. “It’s not going to be any back-and-forth.”

The 16 members on the new iteration of the federal nominating commission include 12 people of color, of which six are women. Of those six, two are immigrants.

The commission represents both an ideological and demographic shift. This is the first time since 2005 that both of Georgia’s U.S. senators have not been Republicans, and Ossoff’s and Warnock’s teams say the men kept their own history-making victories in mind when selecting the members of their nomination advisory team. Warnock is the state’s first Black senator, and Ossoff is the first Jewish man and youngest man to hold the title.

For years, Georgia’s senators have relied on groups of lawyers and politicians to screen and recommend candidates to fill vacancies at the federal level. These little-known, but highly influential, commissions have played key roles in placing judges on the bench with lifetime appointments and filling vacancies for top federal prosecutors.

During the presidencies of George W. Bush and Donald Trump, Georgia’s Republican senators often tapped members of the conservative Federalist Society for advice. Ossoff and Warnock’s commission is nothing like that.

It includes civil rights activists such as Sara Totonchi, the executive director of the Southern Center for Human Rights, and Mawuli Davis, an organizer and lawyer who has represented clients in a number of high-profile cases involving excessive use of force. Allegra Lawrence Hardy, former chairwoman of Stacey Abrams’ gubernatorial campaign and an attorney for her Fair Fight Action organization, is also on the panel.

Other members include former AT&T executive Suzy Ockleberry, who has long advocated for a diverse judiciary in Georgia; civil rights attorney and pastor Francys Johnson of Statesboro; former Secretary of State Cathy Cox, now dean of Mercer University’s law school; and Decatur criminal defense attorney Dwight Thomas, who has been involved in some of Atlanta’s most sensational cases.

No one in the group appears to have much, if any, background in law enforcement, which was often a characteristic of people in previous groups appointed by conservatives.

The commission already has several jobs to help fill, such as the U.S. attorney positions in Atlanta, Macon and Savannah.

And there will soon be two openings on the U.S. District Court bench in Atlanta. In recent weeks, Chief Judge Thomas Thrash and Judge Amy Totenberg have said they plan to become senior judges in May and April, respectively, allowing them to handle reduced caseloads.


Members of the 2021 Federal Nominations Advisory Commission

Chairwoman Leah Ward Sears, former Georgia Supreme Court chief justice and currently a partner at Smith, Gambrell & Russell

Jason Carter, former state senator, former Democratic candidate for governor, President Jimmy Carter’s grandson and a partner at Bondurant, Mixson and Elmore

Cathy Cox, dean and professor at Mercer University School of Law

Mawuli Davis, a civil rights lawyer and human rights organizer based in Decatur

Allegra Lawrence Hardy, senior adviser to Fair Fight Action and a founding partner of Lawrence & Bundy, a commercial litigation firm

Jeff Horst, managing partner of the Krevolin & Horst law firm in Atlanta

Francys Johnson, a civil rights attorney, pastor and educator in Statesboro who previously served as president of the Georgia NAACP

Suzy Ockleberry, former assistant vice president and attorney for AT&T and member of Atlanta Mayor Keisha Lance Bottoms’ Police Use of Force Advisory Council

Herbert Phipps, who retired from the Georgia Court of Appeals in 2016 and also held other judgeships in Dougherty County

Shyam Reddy, chief administrative officer, general counsel, corporate secretary and a senior vice president at BlueLinx Corp.

Pamela Peynado Stewart, an attorney and partner at the Lee & Peynado Immigration Law Group

Dwight Thomas, a criminal defense attorney based in Atlanta and former civil rights attorney for the U.S. Department of Education

Sara Totonchi, executive director of the Southern Center for Human Rights

Michael Warshauer, past president of the Georgia Trial Lawyers Association and the Northside Atlanta Jaycees

James Woodall, who is based in Riverdale and is the youngest person ever elected to serve as president of the Georgia NAACP

Andrea Young, executive director of the American Civil Liberties Union of Georgia and daughter of former Atlanta Mayor Andrew Young