Wednesday, November 26, 2014

Packing and Cracking Alabama’s Black Voters

On November 12, 2014, the U.S. Supreme Court heard oral arguments in Alabama Democratic Conference v. Alabama and Alabama Legislative Black Caucus v. Alabama. These two consolidated Voting Rights cases were brought by a group of white Democrats and black legislators. They contend that Alabama's Republican-dominated legislature redrew the state's legislative districts in ways that diluted the voting strength of racial minorities by packing them into districts that were already heavily populated by minorities. The challengers also claim that the redistricting deprived minority voters of the ability to influence elections in racially integrated districts where they were not majorities. These actions, they claimed, violated the Voting Rights Act and the Equal Protection Clause of the U.S. Constitution.

The 2010 census showed that populations of several majority black districts in Alabama shrank significantly. To achieve an equal distribution of the population, the districts had to be redrawn to incorporate more residents. In 2010 the GOP took control of both houses of Alabama’s legislature. In 2012 the Republican majority redrew the state’s voting districts. When the legislators reconfigured district lines, they added large numbers of African Americans from neighboring districts to districts that were already heavily populated with minorities. This made other districts much whiter and more likely to elect Republican candidates. The legislators also fashioned district lines in ways that minimized the influence of African American voters in racially integrated districts where they were the minority.

The challengers argued that the legislature engaged in “packing,” a tactic that dilutes minority voting strength by putting as many minority voters into as few districts as possible to minimize the number of representatives they could elect. The legislators also engaged in “cracking,” a practice which dilutes minority voting strength by spreading minority communities across several election districts. The evidence showed that in one Montgomery County district that was 72 percent minority, lawmakers drew lines that added 15,785 people, 99.8 percent of whom were minorities. They also removed white voters from the district. The minority population in that district rose to more than 75 percent. Statewide, approximately one-fifth of minority voters were packed into districts that already had democratic majorities. At the same time, black residents were removed from racially integrated districts where their votes could have made a difference in deciding elections.

Republican lawmakers claimed that because many of the districts had lost residents, Section 5 of the Voting Rights Act required the state to maintain the same number of majority-minority districts, with roughly the same percentage of minority voters. Democratic and African-American lawmakers argued that the Section 5 rationale was a pretext for racial Gerrymandering. The legislature went beyond what was needed to avoid retrogression. (Changes that reduce minority groups’ opportunities to elect candidates of their choice.)[1]

The Alabama case went to trial in 2013 in a three-judge federal district court. The critical question was whether the legislature relied primarily on race, or partisanship, when it redrew its districts. The majority ruled for Alabama finding 2-to-1 that state legislators had not relied too heavily on race in redrawing the districts. The case was appealed to the U.S. Supreme Court.

The Wall Street Journal reported that the Court’s four liberal justices appeared to be sympathetic to the challengers. Chief Justice John Roberts was skeptical. He said states are in a difficult situation when they redistrict because they must take race into account to comply with the Voting Rights Act but cannot give race too much weight as that would make it the predominant factor.

Another observer wrote that “Justice Anthony Kennedy, who may be the key vote in this case, did not see Alabama as having drawn its lines to comply with the Act. Instead, he saw Alabama as engaging in a partisan gerrymander, something which may be distasteful but is not the basis for the Court to strike down a plan as a racial gerrymander.” If this observation is accurate, the case could end up in a 5-4 vote upholding Alabama’s plan.

The evidence showed that race was the primary consideration in Alabama’s redistricting plan. Section 5 compliance was a pretext for a racial gerrymander. The legislature deliberately diluted black voting strength. The redistricting plans went well beyond what was necessary to avoid retrogression. However, given the trend in voting rights cases, the majority is likely to conclude that partisan considerations outweighed race. If this happens it will be another example of the majority’s unrelenting efforts to undermine the Voting rights Act. The rights of African American voters to have an equal opportunity to participate in the political process will be subordinated to the partisan schemes of Alabama’s Republican majority.



[1] In cases where race is the predominant factor the redistricting plan must be subjected to the “strict scrutiny.” Under this standard a racially motivated redistricting can be justified only when it has a “compelling justification” and the means chosen are “narrowly tailored” to achieving a legitimate governmental interest. The Supreme Court has found that compliance with Section 5 is a “compelling” state interest but it has struck down plans that went beyond what was necessary to avoid “retrogression.”
 

Tuesday, November 18, 2014

Vivian Malone Jones and the Voter Education Project


From Integration to Voter Registration
 
By Christena Bledsoe
 
From Southern Changes
Vol. 1, No. 2 (1978)
 




 
 
 
 
Sometime in her youth, Vivian Malone Jones decided she wanted to go to college. That wouldn't have been such an unusual decision except that her family was poor. Her father was a laborer. She was one of seven children. She lived in Alabama. It was the early 60s. And she was Black.

"I just knew I was going to college," she says, her voice rising with inflection as she remembers. "It was one of those things that - I just knew."

It was 1961 and she was 18. She set her sights on becoming a certified accountant. She applied to the University of Alabama and was told "no," due to a crowded enrollment situation. An unspoken reason stood out though. The school was all-White and accepting her would have meant integrating the university where Alabama's well-bred White families for generations had sent their young.

She was admitted to the state's Black school, Alabama A&M, where Alabama tradition said she belonged. She majored in business education, the closest available field to her career choice, and attended for two years. But she wasn't satisfied. She wanted more: she wanted to be able to pick the school where the education received would help accomplish her goals. She persisted in trying to get into the University of Alabama. She sought advice from NAACP Legal Defense Fund in New York and two years later her admission was ordered by a court.

She was, however, throwing herself and her family into an emotionally charged, possibly dangerous situation. Several other Black students changed their minds about entering the university after a man who identified himself as a representative of the state of Alabama spoke to their families.

"'You know,'" she recalls his words, "'there's going to be trouble here and we can't guarantee your child's safety under these conditions. Are you sure you want your child to go in there?'"

Her family believed she should stick with her plans. They received threatening phone calls and had police protection for six months. "But nobody ever bombed the house or burned a cross. That's pretty good considering," she says now.

The day finally arrived: June 11, 1963. She waited silently in a car, along with fellow would-be student James Hood, while U.S. Deputy Attorney General Nicholas Katzebach confronted Alabama Governor George Wallace. at the school door.

The TV cameras glowed, the pencil press recorded and the event became etched in the memories of Americans everywhere. It was a flamboyant extravaganza - some say staged so that Gov. Wallace could have his show - testifying that the South was reluctantly changing, that racial barriers were going to be broken and that doors to education and the social mainstream were opening for Southern Blacks.

As she sat in the car, she concentrated on how she would fare academically. "I was in. I knew that. I worried about maintaining grades with the pressure I anticipated would surround me." She decided to push fear out of her head. "You can't afford to let it dominate your thoughts. There are other things a lot more important that you need to think about as opposed to, 'My God, what happens if someone fires a shot?' You just don't deal with that kind of thing. If you really are that concerned about your physical safety and security, then it's probably not for you to be in a place like that."

Today Vivian Malone Jones finds herself part of the Southern legend of change, safely chronicled in the pages of history. She went on to become the first Black to graduate from the University of Alabama. From there she moved to Washington, D.C., where she became a research analyst for the U.S. Department of Justice's Civil Rights Division and later an employee relations specialist for the Veterans Administration's central office. While in Washington, she also pursued the M.S. Degree in Public Administration at George Washington University.

She keeps a front page clipping as a memento of her admittance to the University of Alabama in an office drawer, but at 36, she's too young to be content with memories from the past. Today she finds herself in a world swirled by the '60s promise of change that was never fulfilled.

Today Jones sits near a poster that proclaims, "Hands that picked cotton now can pick our public officials," and discusses her work. She now is the executive director of the Voter Education Project, a non-profit corporation based in Atlanta that has striven to promote change through the political process.

She assumed the VEP directorship in August of 1977, after former director and civil rights figure John Lewis was appointed associate director of ACTION, the federal voluntary agency. She came to VEP after several years as director of the Civil Rights and Urban Affairs Division for the Environmental Protection Agency. Widely acclaimed for its work, VEP, which began as a special project of the Southern Regional Council but became a separate entity in 1970, has assisted the voter registration of almost 3 million Blacks throughout the South.

The Black vote now counts. In 1976, Black voters, particularly in states like Mississippi, assured the election of the President. Just I1 years earlier, a U.S. president had used his office to secure passage of a Voting Rights Act designed to eliminate illegal barriers interfering with Black citizens' right to vote.

The turnabout sounds dramatic and is. It is also misleading. Southern Blacks are far from being full partners in the political process. Despite spectacular gains such as winning the majority of Atlanta and New Orleans, they are underrepresented at the statehouse level, in the county commission and city council chambers of the South and in the U.S. Congress as well.

VEP faces a massive job ahead if the majority of Southern Blacks ever are to register and exercise their right to vote, thereby shaping a political system responsive to their needs.

Right now those prospects don't look good. Statistically speaking, VEP's job is half-done at best. Millions of Southern Blacks have not taken advantage of the right to register to vote, perhaps three to four million in all.

"The problem that we're running into is that once you've registered all the people who are eager, willing, or at least the only thing they needed was a little motivation, then you get down to the hard-core group," explains Jones, a tall, poised woman with a collected air.

Youths, aged 18 to 25, constitute the largest number of unregistered Blacks. Their interests tend to be scattered and they see little reason to register or vote unless an issue specifically touches them.

In rural areas where older Blacks dominate, they often don't vote. "They've been accustomed to things as they were 15, 20 or 30 years ago and really see no hope for getting out of that situation."

Another problem is that many who registered earlier failed to vote. Their names have been purged from the polls. "We've got the age-old problem of educating people about why it's important to vote." VEP attempts to pass the word that in other similar communities Blacks registered and were able to put into office officials that represented their interests.

That, ultimately, says Jones, is what voter registration is about. It's a complicated task. It takes learning issues, learning which candidates represent your interests and lending campaign support.

"Once you've satisfied your basic needs of food, shelter and clothing you can concentrate on some of those more sophisticated areas. It's difficult to get someone to contribute even a dollar when they're looking for work," Jones assesses.

VEP provides funds and technical assistance to registration projects run by community groups, such as the NAACP or SCLC. The work is being hamstrung by inadequate finances. Like many non-profit corporations, VEP was dependent on foundation support that sharply dwindled in the mid-70s recession. Despite efforts to expand its financial base, VEP hasn't yet fully recovered. Its budget, a maximum of $457,000 this year if sought after funds are received, is half its early 70s size. Permanent staff has shrunk too. "We have to turn down maybe 12 requests for every one that we're able to fund."

Given the combination of complex field work and financial restrictions, Jones is reluctant to set a timetable for when most Southern Blacks will be registered. "I think we've done very well with what we've had," she responds. "We're dealing with large numbers of people who have never voted in their lives, their parents didn't vote. When you think about the political process and how long it's been in effect, then 16 years (VEP's existence) represents a very small period."

Among projects underway, VEP is funding a Florida project designed to register the handicapped and a pilot Georgia program, Project 23, the results of which later may be applied to other states.

Project 23 takes its name from the 23 Georgia counties where the majority of the population is Black. Most are located in middle and southwest Georgia, a few are spread elsewhere.

Many of the counties have no Black elected public officials. "If you've got a majority of 75 percent and 80 percent in some cases, and no Black elected officials, then something's wrong with the process. "It's like South Africa almost," she says, diminishing with a small laugh what to some might be an unpopular analogy.

What VEP has done is to go into the 23 counties and look for impediments that keep Blacks from registering or running for office. A commonly found situation was that of confining voter registration to the courthouse, despite the ready convenience of widely frequented sites such as grocery stores or shopping centers.

Often the hours set for registration were so restricted that Blacks had trouble taking advantage of them. VEP experienced difficulties also in getting deputy registrars appointed to assist the registration of Blacks. In a few instances, restrictions were extreme. Jones speaks of situations where registration was held in a White home and Blacks were told to enter at the back of the house. She also speaks of a "couple of cases" where ballots were marked so that it was known who voted for whom. "This can lead to intimidation if you don't vote for the right person.

A number of the counties now have expanded registration sites and hours and some elected officials more representative of the population. In one area, more than 99 percent of the Black populace has been registered. But problems remain. VEP frequently gets calls from area people concerned about "how the votes were counted or what happens to the ballots . . . As long as those kinds of things are still happening, we will continue Project 23."

As she views the South from the perspective of the 60s, Jones says she would have expected much more change.

She lives in a neighborhood undergoing transition from White to Black. This is the second neighborhood she has lived in where for-sale signs have appeared on White owned homes after Blacks began moving in. She expects her current Atlanta neighborhood to be 75 percent Black within a year. "I expected that by now people would not be running when Blacks moved into the neighborhood."

She expected that a system would have been developed by now which would have eliminated the poverty still affecting masses of Southern Blacks. In her field work, she looks around and often exclaims, "My God, this is just as it was when I was growing up."

She recalls a recent conversation with a Black neighbor that illustrates both a lack of change and a reluctance to push the status quo.

As a point of curiosity, she asked what the fee was for the nearly private country club. "The person I was talking to said, 'Oh, I've been wanting to join, but they don't allow Blacks to join.'

"I asked, 'Have you applied?'

"No, she hadn't.

"This is the same kind of mentality we're talking about when I talk about someone not going down to register or not running for office because 'Blacks don't do this.' "

Recent events, Proposition 13, the Bakke Supreme Court case, and decisions favoring the seniority system, disturb her.

"I think that some of the kinds of problems that are cropping up are the result of a settling process. It will be interesting to see which way these things go because I think it can set us back considerably if this trend continues." She believes the country will be in for "a lot of turmoil and disruption if that happens." She declines to speculate on the form of turmoil though, doubting that anyone could have predicted the riots of the 60s. She advocates protest through the ballot box. "That's when it is being used properly."

If change indeed occurs, what kind of society would she like to see it produce?

"If you're talking about the ultimate - what I consider to be the kind of situation where we'll say 'Yes, we've arrived and things are really great.' I think that's the time when people can truly move into society without the overriding factor being race or sex."

"I don't know if I'll ever see this in my lifetime. I really don't. I doubt it."

Nonetheless, she appears determined to work for change, as determined as when she won the right to enter the University of Alabama. She notes that James Hood, who entered with her, recently said he would not go through the harrowing experience again.

"I feel just the opposite. If I had to do it again, I would. There is absolutely no question in my mind ... I couldn't accept that condition anymore today than I could back in 1961 when Wallace was saying I couldn't go to that school."

At the time of this writing, Christena Bledsoe was a freelance writer living in Atlanta.

 

 

 

Friday, November 14, 2014

Senate Confirms Leigh Martin May as District Judge

R. Robin McDonald,
Daily Report, November 13, 2014

The U.S. Senate voted 98-0 Thursday to confirm Atlanta attorney Leigh Martin May as a U.S. District judge for the Northern District in Atlanta.

On Wednesday, the Senate voted to close debate on May's nomination, which had been delayed by a Senate filibuster since September. Prior to Wednesday's vote, U.S. Sen. Johnny Isakson (R-Ga.) took the floor to praise May, a longtime partner with personal injury law firm Butler Wooten Cheeley & Peak.

Calling May "an unbelievably exciting, unbelievably knowledgeable, unbelievably accomplished individual," Isakson said that May had both his support and that of Georgia's other senator, Saxby Chambliss.

In urging his colleagues to close debate so the full Senate can vote on May's confirmation, Isakson also described her as "a very talented, very deserving person" whom the American Bar Association has unanimously rated as qualified to hold a federal judgeship.

May graduated from the Georgia Institute of Technology with honors in 1993 before earning her law degree in 1998 from the University of Georgia School of Law. From 1998-2000, May clerked for U.S. District Judge Dudley Bowen Jr. in the Southern District of Georgia in Augusta. Bowen, now a senior judge, was appointed to the bench by President Jimmy Carter in 1979.

Isakson said that in [the month of] May, when he spoke at the University of Georgia's graduation ceremony, UGA's law school dean "came up to me and said, 'I just want you to know, Mr. Isakson, you nominated one of the smartest people to ever graduate from the law school of the University of Georgia when you nominated Leigh May.'"

"I can't think of a higher or better recommendation, and I commend Leigh May to my colleagues of the Senate with my highest recommendation," Isakson said,

Isakson also thanked President Barack Obama and Obama's former White House counsel, Kathryn Ruemmler, who helped broker a deal that included May between the White House and Georgia's senators last year. In return for allowing May's nomination to the district court bench and that of Atlanta attorney Jill Pryor to the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Eleventh Circuit in Atlanta, Isakson and Chambliss selected candidates for a second seat on the Eleventh Circuit and three more seats on the Northern District bench. In July, the Senate confirmed then-U.S. District Court Chief Judge Julie Carnes to the Eleventh Circuit. Pryor was confirmed in September.

Despite Isakson's urging, 30 Republican senators voted unsuccessfully to continue the filibuster of May's nomination.

On Wednesday, U.S. Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid (D-Nev.), called for votes to end filibusters of three other Georgia judicial nominees who currently awaiting confirmation by the full Senate. Troutman Sanders partner Mark Cohen and DeKalb County State Court Judge Eleanor Ross are awaiting Senate votes for U.S. District Court Northern District of Georgia. Leslie Abrams, an assistant U.S. attorney in Atlanta, is awaiting confirmation for a seat in the Middle District of Georgia in Albany.

The final nominee in the compromise package—Georgia Court of Appeals Judge Michael Boggs—has been stalled in the U.S. Senate Judiciary Committee since last summer after Committee Chairman Patrick Leahy, D-Vt., said he didn't have the votes to send Boggs' nomination to the full Senate for a confirmation vote. Boggs' ascension to the federal bench stalled in the face of national objections based on his voting record as a state legislator, including his support for a constitutional amendment to ban same-sex marriage in Georgia and a strong opposition to reproductive rights that included support for a bill that would establish a public registry on the Internet of doctors who performed abortions.

This week, Isakson told the Huffington Post in Washington that he "supported Mr. Boggs before and I would support him again… but that's up to the president."

Friday, November 7, 2014

Senate Power Switch Could Revive Michael Boggs' Judicial Confirmation

R. Robin McDonald
Daily Report, November 6, 2014

The Republican takeover of the U.S. Senate this week might give new life to the stalled nomination of Michael Boggs, the Georgia Court of Appeals judge tapped for the U.S. District Court in Atlanta.
Boggs was nominated by President Barack Obama as part of a package deal with Georgia's U.S. senators, Republicans Saxby Chambliss and Johnny Isakson. The Democratic-controlled Senate Judiciary Committee has not moved Boggs' name to the full Senate, unlike six other nominees in the group, including two who have been confirmed. Democrats at a hearing for all seven of the nominees criticized Boggs' opposition as a state legislator to same-sex marriage and a change in the Confederate emblem on the state flag and his support for a bill registering doctors who perform abortions.
 
"I would be cautiously optimistic" about Boggs' nomination going forward, said Randy Evans, a McKenna Long & Aldridge partner with close connections to state and national Republicans. Evans, who co-chairs Gov. Nathan Deal's Judicial Nominating Commission, said he does not expect Boggs to get a confirmation vote during Congress's upcoming lame duck session while Senate Democrats still hold the majority.
 
Evans also said that, given the president's commitment to Boggs and the deal that led to his nomination, the Georgia appellate judge would have "a reasonable chance" of securing a newly constituted Senate Judiciary Committee's approval and then winning a simple majority of the Senate under relaxed filibuster rules adopted last year.
 
 
Boggs' longtime campaign counsel, Atlanta attorney Douglas Chalmers, declined comment on whether Tuesday's election had brightened Boggs' prospects for the federal bench. Federal bench nominees typically do not speak to the news media.
 
Republican U.S. Senate candidate David Perdue, who defeated Democrat Michelle Nunn for Chambliss' seat on Tuesday, last month signaled from the campaign trail that Boggs' nomination "deserves serious consideration." Perdue spokeswoman Megan Whittemore reiterated that on Wednesday.
 
"Given what we know about Judge Boggs' judicial record, he deserves serious consideration, but David still hopes to have an opportunity to meet with him personally."
 
Whittemore also said that, if the other Georgia judicial nominees now awaiting a confirmation vote by the full Senate are not confirmed by the time Perdue is sworn in next January, "He looks forward to meeting with them as well. He understands the strain that the ongoing vacancies are having on the courts, and he's hopeful it can be resolved quickly."

Marietta attorney Robert Ingram—one of six members of an ad-hoc committee of lawyers and judges who advised Chambliss and Isakson on their federal judicial picks—said the Senate's transition to a Republican majority "may very well revitalize [Boggs'] nomination."

"The president stood by him and said he was a worthy nominee and worthy of a vote in the Senate, which he never got," Ingram said. "The people who know him best—lawyers from all perspectives, plaintiffs' lawyers, defense lawyers, prosecutors … who have appeared before him or tried cases before him said he is smart and fair. That's what you want in a judge."

Charles Johnson, a partner at Atlanta's Holland & Knight who has been pushing for more diversity in appointments to the federal bench in Georgia, acknowledged that Boggs' nomination could be resurrected. For that to happen, Johnson said someone on the judiciary committee who has opposed Boggs would have to switch positions during the lame duck session or the White House would have to renominate him next year.

"If he's renominated, I think it's a whole new ballgame," Johnson said. Yet, because of Boggs' track record as a Georgia legislator, Johnson said there is still a question about whether the president will be comfortable with Boggs' appointment becoming part of his presidential legacy.

U.S. Rep. David Scott, a Democrat who represents Georgia's 13th Congressional District and has vigorously opposed Boggs' elevation to the federal bench, said he believes that when Boggs' nomination officially expires in December, the White House will not renominate him. "I think that Boggs' [nomination] is dead, and I think that is a battle that has been very courageously fought by a broad and wide and energetic coalition of Americans who have come together all across this country," he said. If the president were to renominate Boggs "it would be just plain stupidity," Scott added. "However, we've always got to stay vigilant … to always make sure that the victory remains a victory."

The deal in which Boggs was nominated ended a stalemate that had left vacancies for two Georgia-based judgeships on the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Eleventh Circuit and three posts on the Northern District bench in Atlanta.

The deal revived the nomination of Atlanta lawyer Jill Pryor to the Eleventh Circuit, which Chambliss and Isakson had refused for two years to approve. In exchange for the senators' agreement to return blue slips—a courtesy where home state senators signal their approval of a judicial nominee—on Pryor's Eleventh Circuit nomination and the nomination of Atlanta attorney Leigh Martin May for a seat on the Northern District of Georgia bench, the White House allowed Chambliss and Isakson to select candidates for the second Eleventh Circuit seat and three Northern District slots. (A fourth post opened on the Northern District when Obama nominated then-Chief Judge Julie Carnes to the Eleventh Circuit.)

The Senate confirmed Carnes in July and Pryor in September. The Senate is scheduled to vote to end a filibuster of May's nomination on Nov. 12. Three other nominees—Troutman Sanders attorney Mark Cohen, DeKalb State Court Judge Eleanor Ross (both nominated for seats on the Northern District bench) and Assistant U.S. Attorney Leslie Abrams (for a seat on the Middle District of Georgia in Albany)—are awaiting as yet unscheduled votes by the full Senate.

Boggs' nomination stalled after he became the beleaguered star of a group confirmation hearing of Georgia's federal judicial nominees last June. At that hearing, Boggs—whom Gov. Nathan Deal elevated from the trial bench to the state appellate court in 2012—quickly became the focus of Democratic senators. They grilled him on the conservative—and often controversial—stances he had taken while a Georgia legislator from 2001 to 2003. Boggs fielded questions on his support for a constitutional amendment barring same-sex marriage that he had introduced in the Georgia Senate, his votes to retain the Confederate battle emblem on the Georgia flag and his support for bills restricting abortions and requiring that the names of physicians who performed them be published on an Internet registry.

Although Judiciary Committee Chairman Pat Leahy, D-Vt., declared Boggs' nomination dead in September, Boggs didn't withdraw his name, and the White House also has remained steadfast, signaling at a daily press briefing that the president was holding firm, despite national opposition from civil rights and reproductive rights groups.

Thursday, October 23, 2014

Georgia's JNC Members on How to Seek a Judicial Appointment



JNC Members: Bench Diversity Not Black and White
Greg Land
Daily Report,  October 23, 2014
 
A member of the Judicial Nominating Commission told a group of Asian-American lawyers seeking advice on how to get on the bench that selection of judges is "an inherently political process."
"Not Republican-Democrat politics," Scott Delius added Tuesday night. "Personal politics. Are you well-liked? Are you well-connected?"
Delius' comments reflected the overall theme delivered by three JNC members during the Georgia Asian Pacific American Bar Association's discussion on how to get on a short list the JNC sends to the governor for consideration when a judicial vacancy arises.
The event was held in McKenna Long & Aldridge's SunTrust Plaza offices, and included a spirited discussion of diversity—both on the bench and among the JNC's members—moderated by DeKalb County State Court Judge Alvin Wong.
He promised to address "the white elephants in the room" as he genially grilled JNC cochairman Pete Robinson and members B.J. Pak and Delius concerning the panel's method of selecting potential judges, and whether that system was as fair as it might be.
Wong—Georgia's first elected Asian-American judge—was joined by Court of Appeals Judge Carla Wong McMillian, U.S. Magistrate Judge Justin Anand, Duluth Municipal Court Judge Chung Lee and Meng Lim of Bremen, who in August was elected to the Tallapoosa Circuit Superior Court.
Robinson, the managing partner of Troutman Sanders' Atlanta office, cochairs the JNC with McKenna partner Randy Evans.
Robinson kicked off the discussion by laying out the steps for filling a vacancy on a Georgia court. Robinson said there was generally a six-week process between the time a seat opens up and when the 21-member panel sends a short list of three to five names to Gov. Nathan Deal.
The detailed questionnaires and résumés that candidates submit are important, said Robinson, but so is input from local bar associations and organizations.
"We absolutely solicit interest groups," said Robinson. "We spend a lot of time listening to them and appreciate this input, and getting calls from someone suggesting or opposing a candidate."
Such calls should be brief, he noted: "I'm not going to spend 30 minutes listening to someone tell me what an SOB someone is."
Another key are the interviews with candidates who make the first cut. They last only about 10 minutes, "but those 10 minutes are very important," said Robinson. "There's two or three minutes of talking about yourself, a few minutes of Q&A with the members, then Randy or I will close it off with a question."
"It's a very simple process," said Robinson, "and the standard that I use is ... I'm looking for someone who is smart and fair, maybe a little more weighted to fair."
Judges must be compassionate, said Robinson, and understand that the people who appear before them are already under stress.
“My one fundamental fear is, ‘Is that judge going to develop Robe-itis?’” he said.
“If you come in and tell me how smart you are, that you’re smarter than all the other nominees or applicants, you’re never going to make the list,” Robinson said.
Robinson said the current JNC is composed of 17 men and four women. It includes four African-Americans and one Asian-American: Pak.
Wong used that statistic as his jumping-off point for the diversity discussion.
"What do you say about the lack of [minority] representation on the commission?" he asked the panelists. Would it make sense to have more minorities appointed?
Perhaps, said Delius, but the makeup of the judiciary itself would seem more important than the makeup of the JNC. Delius circled back to Robinson's comments concerning the need for ethnic bar associations and organizations to weigh in.
"I want to underscore what Pete said about how important what these groups have to say is," he said. Such input may well decide the panel's ultimate decision, said Delius.
Some bar associations rate candidates' qualifications, Robinson added, and he keeps careful notes of such ratings and who provided them.
"The wider the support, the better," Robinson said.
Pak, a Republican member of the state House of Representatives, said the makeup of the JNC was generally more a product of whether appointees were known to the governor or people whose opinions he values.
"If you look at the composition of the JNC right now, it's not really partisan," said Pak. "It's more like, does the governor know that person, are you a known commodity?"
While the African-American bar is well-established in state and local bar associations, Pak said, "We haven't done a good job in the Asian community."
Pak urged his listeners to become active in other bar associations as well as the ethnic organizations.
"Having allies on other bars is important," he said.
Delius said, "It's the person that walks into the room that no one's heard of who is going to have a hard time."
Wong asked, given criticism of the JNC's own lack of diversity, "should it at least appear more diverse? Does that [suggestion] ever get talked about, sent up the food chain?"
Pak said his own appointment pointed to Deal's desire to broaden the demographics of the JNC and the judiciary as a whole.
"I know they're very concerned about it, because they call me all the time for candidates," Pak said. "We need to get the judiciary to reflect the community; I'm not so worried about the makeup of the JNC."
Delius said the JNC will often look at a slate of candidates and wonder why more women and minorities aren't included, and often conclude that qualified candidates are simply not applying.
"People need to step up and apply," Delius said. He cited a recent vacancy in which one Asian, one African-American and one Hispanic had applied along with a lengthy list of white candidates.
"You can't sacrifice quality and merit just to get somebody on there," said Delius, citing people "who are really qualified," but are unwilling to step out of rewarding practices to join the bench.
"It's the pipeline that's the problem, not the picking," Delius said.