Sunday, March 6, 2011

Atlanta's Continuing Struggle for a More Representative Federal Bench

Imagine a time when all of the full-time judges on Atlanta's federal district court are white; when circumstances have conspired to create a number of vacancies on the court; when, even in those circumstances, it's far from clear that the court's all-white composition will change any time soon and, if it's going to change, it's far from clear that any new judge will have the demonstrated qualities of empathy and compassion which are all too rare; when it becomes necessary for people of good will to mobilize to assure that the selection process produces a bench that is more qualified and more representative.

The time to which I refer could easily be 2010 or early 2011, but it's not. Rather, I refer to 1978.

Congress had just passed the Omnibus Judgeship Bill, creating scores of new judgeships around the country. In the Northern District of Alabama, two African American judges were appointed under the bill. In the Northern District of Georgia - which had just as many open judgeships - it would be a struggle to get even one African American judge.

Fortunately, out of all the candidates under consideration in Georgia's Northern District, there was one candidate who had that rare combination of qualities around which people of good will could unite. He had been valedictorian of his graduating class at East Depot High School in LaGrange, Georgia; an honors graduate of Morehouse College, and the recipient of a Masters from Atlanta University and a law degree from Northwestern. He had been the first plaintiff to challenge segregation at the University of Georgia, and he had been part of the team that finally brought that segregation to an end - the same team that also brought an end to the all-white jury pools that existed in some Georgia counties. He had been the second African American to be elected to the Georgia Senate since Reconstruction; the first African American to serve on what was then called the Civil Court of Fulton County; and the first African American to serve on the Superior Court of Fulton County. He was known to agonize over sentencing decisions and, among all of his colleagues on the Fulton Superior Court, he had the lowest reversal rate.

With a good bit of effort on the part of people of good will (including a President with whom he had served in the Georgia Senate, including a Senator who had blocked his admission to the University of Georgia, and including people of good will from across the community and across the nation), this candidate in 1979 was appointed to the court, where his many cases ironically included the Jan Kemp case involving free speech at the University of Georgia and where, today, as a Senior Judge, he continues to serve with distinction.

The person to whom I refer is Horace T. Ward.

Today, Judge Ward is a member of the Halls of Fame of the Gate City Bar and the National Bar. He has received the Distinguished Alumni Award from Atlanta University; the Bennie Service Award from Morehouse College; the Merit Award from Northwestern University; the Trumpet Award for Civil Rights Advocacy from Turner Broadcasting System. Atlanta Magazine summed up his career in 1976 when it recognized him as one of 200 people who shaped Atlanta.

In 1978 the appointment of Judge Ward - or any person of color, for that matter - was far from being a foregone conclusion. Even with his impeccable background, his appointment required concerted action on the part of a broad coalition of people who cared about a more representative judiciary.

And so it is today.

As this year began, there were four vacant positions on Atlanta's federal district court and no full-time African American judges. On February 28, the Senate voted to confirm two new judges on that court, including one African American who resides in another federal district. Even with these appointments, however, the court has no judges of color who actually reside in the district.

The President has moved to remedy this situation, nominating two African American candidates for the two remaining vacancies, both of whom actually reside in the district. If these nominations are confirmed, the court will also have its first Black female judges.

These latest nominations are a positive development. But a nomination doesn't always result in a confirmation, especially in a State which has no Senators who belong to the President's party. Just as in 1978, if Atlanta is going to achieve the goal of having a quality federal court which is also truly representative, it will be necessary for people of good will to come together to make it happen.

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