Tuesday, November 26, 2013

Georgia Democrats, civil rights groups try to thwart White House deal on judges

Bill Rankin - The Atlanta Journal-Constitution
Sunday, Nov. 24, 2013
Georgia Democrats and civil rights groups are trying to scuttle a deal among the state’s two Republican senators and the White House to fill five long-running federal judicial vacancies, because only one candidate is a minority.
U.S. Rep. John Lewis said the issue is important enough to take to President Barack Obama himself.
The Atlanta Democrat and civil rights icon said he will use “all means” of leverage. “If I get a chance to speak with (Obama), I will,” he said.
The nominee standoff has dragged on for years, and the federal court system has declared four of Georgia’s vacancies “judicial emergencies” because of the length of the vacancy and the court workload.
The dispute does not directly relate to Senate Democrats’ decision last week to change filibuster rules so they could confirm most Obama nominees more easily, but the political fallout from that “nuclear option” also could imperil the deal.
Two vacancies on the Atlanta-based 11th Circuit Court of Appeals — which hears cases from Georgia, Alabama and Florida — would be filled by Atlanta attorney Jill Pryor and U.S. District Court Chief Judge Julie Carnes.
Pryor, 50, is a partner at Bondurant, Mixson & Elmore and a past president of the Georgia Association for Women Lawyers. A former prosecutor, Carnes, 62, was nominated to her post by President George H.W. Bush in 1991.
Carnes’ move would create a total of four vacancies on the Northern District of Georgia bench, to be filled by Atlanta personal injury attorney Leigh Martin May, DeKalb County State Court Judge Eleanor Ross, Georgia Court of Appeals Judge Michael Boggs and Atlanta lawyer Mark Cohen.
Pryor has been formally nominated by the White House, while the rest are still going through the vetting process and have not been announced. Only Ross, who is African-American, is a minority.
Months of negotiations produced the set of potential nominees, but when the names were published in September in the Daily Report, a Fulton County legal publication, Georgia’s five Democratic Congressmen were up in arms. The White House had asked them to help come up with candidates for vacancies at the start of Obama’s first term, but they were shut out of the deal with the senators.
The House members met with outgoing White House counsel Kathryn Ruemmler last month to air their grievances.
“I think they heard our concerns,” said U.S. Rep. Hank Johnson, a DeKalb County Democrat. “There will be a new counsel (expected next year) and presumably there could be a fresh look at the nomination process.”
Meanwhile, members of Atlanta’s civil rights community became increasingly vocal in their insistence that the federal courts should reflect the populations they oversee.
The African-American population in Georgia is 31 percent, more than double the national average of 13 percent. Blacks comprise 26.5 percent of Alabama’s population and almost 17 percent of Florida’s.
The 11th Circuit, headquartered in Atlanta, is allotted a dozen judges and has only one African-American judge, Charles Wilson, and one Cuban-born judge, Adalberto Jordan, of Miami.
The U.S. District Court bench in Atlanta has only one African-American, Steve Jones, sitting as a full-time judge. That court is allotted 11 judges.
The federal court headquartered in Macon has only had one African-American judge in its history. The bench in Savannah has had none.
Stephen Bright, president of the Southern Center for Human Rights in Atlanta, bemoaned the Obama administration’s failure to put more African-American judges on the federal bench in Georgia.
“The lack of racial diversity in the administration’s appointments is absolutely inexcusable,” Bright said. “The courts have no credibility or legitimacy if they do not look like the people whose cases they are deciding.”
The U.S. Courts, which track judicial vacancies, recently noted that U.S. District Judge Louis Sands in Macon, who is black, will become a senior judge no longer serving full-time starting in April.
This means blacks will then fill only one the 18 federal judgeships in Georgia, said Leslie Proll, director of the Washington office of the NAACP Legal Defense and Education Fund. “It’s a situation that desperately needs attention,” she said. “It makes an already dire situation … even more urgent.”
The White House had placed a premium on finding African-American women for the posts, and Obama nominated U.S. Magistrate Judge Linda Walker and federal public defender Natasha Perdew Silas for a pair of district court openings at the beginning of 2011.
Georgia Republican Sens. Johnny Isakson and Saxby Chambliss were fine with Walker but would not approve Silas. Home-state senators’ approval is required for nominees to advance through the Judiciary Committee, by the custom of committee chairman Patrick Leahy, D-Vt. The White House said the duo was a package, so neither went through.
In the latest group, Pryor and May are the Democrat-backed candidates. Both are white.
State Sen. Vincent Fort, D-Atlanta, said Boggs’ and Cohen’s records are particularly troubling. When he was in the state Senate, Boggs voted to keep the old Georgia state flag, which included a Confederate flag.
Cohen defended Georgia’s Voter ID law, which civil rights groups opposed because of the impact they said it would have on minorities.
“This would just make an already bad court from the civil rights perspective even worse,” Fort said.
Josh Belinfante, former executive counsel to Republican Gov. Sonny Perdue, defended the slate as “a very good compromise.”
The flag vote did not cause a stir when Boggs was elevated to the state Court of Appeals. Boggs was instrumental in last year’s passage of criminal-justice reform legislation, which allowed Georgia to push more nonviolent offenders away from prison. It also gave judges more discretion to depart from some of the state’s strict mandatory minimum-sentencing laws.
Cohen, who once served as Gov. Zell Miller’s chief of staff, defended Georgia’s voter ID law at the request of Democratic Attorney General Thurbert Baker.
“It’s a shame that their opponents have not focused on their intellect and judicial temperament but instead on other matters,” Belinfante said.
Isakson, Chambliss and the White House declined to comment until nominations are official. Foes are vowing to keep the pressure on to thwart the expected picks.
“This is a situation where Congressman Lewis in particular has to step up and speak to the president and make his voice known on this,” Fort said. “You can’t rely on hope. Hope is not a plan.”
Lewis agreed.
“I just think we can do better,” said Georgia’s longest-serving member of Congress. “The makeup of the judiciary should reflect all of the people.”

Tuesday, November 5, 2013

Invoking John Lewis' Moral Authority in favor of an Accountable Judiciary

Dear Congressman Lewis –

The most enduring legacy that any President can leave is in the judges he appoints.  However, anyone who voted for this President with the expectation that he would leave a legacy of progressive judges is in danger of being sorely disappointed.

President Obama has the opportunity to appoint two judges to the Eleventh Circuit Court of Appeals, and as many as four to the US District Court for the Northern District of Georgia, with the advice and consent of the Senate.  In previous years Georgia’s Senators have come to our community for input on the candidates being considered for federal judgeships. But that has not happened with Georgia’s current Senators under this President. Yet the  President has apparently decided that the only way he can fill any of these vacancies is to accept a slate of nominees agreed to by Georgia’s Senators.

What kind of people are they?  To paraphrase Dr. King, the ultimate measure of a man of woman is not where he stands in times of comfort and convenience but where she stands in times of challenge and controversy.

Where did Mark Cohen stand in times of challenge and controversy - when the State asked him to defend Georgia’s voter ID law?  He could have said – this law hurts people - this is a law that the State shouldn’t try to defend - He could have said my conscience won’t let me defend it.  Instead he took the case and defended the law and succeeded in having the law upheld.

Where did Michael Boggs stand in times of challenge and controversy - when he had the opportunity as a member of the General Assembly to vote for or against removing the Confederate battle emblem from the State Flag – the opportunity to make a statement about whether Georgia’s government was going to represent all of its citizens or just some of them?  He  voted to keep the confederate battle emblem on the state flag.

There are those who may say that Mark Cohen’s work on the voter ID bill was "just business" – that he was just representing a client - and the type of clients that he represents Is not something that should be held against him.  I would ask those people to tell that to Natasha Perdew Silas - whom the president previously nominated to the Northern District of Georgia, whom the senators rejected, apparently because of the types of clients she represented – people who were accused of crimes.  Unlike Mark Cohen, Ms. Silas was a public defender and was not in a position to pick and choose her clients.

There are those who may say that Michael Boggs was only one of 82 legislators who voted against changing Georgia’s flag and that, in doing so, he was merely representing the views of his constituents.  I would ask those people if they are saying that Michael Boggs is someone who makes decisions on the basis of anything other than what he thinks is right?  I would ask them, who were his constituents, anyway?  Actually, they were the citizens of Waycross, Georgia, in Ware County, in the Southern District of Georgia.  Someone who actually lived in the Northern District of Georgia – someone who actually represented the views of people who live in the Northern District of Georgia – might have voted differently.  This illustrates the importance of having judges who are representative of the communities that they serve.

There are those who may say that there are other persons who are part of this deal whom they like.  To them I would say that what is being proposed is a package deal – that, under this deal, the price for having any new judges at all is having  judges included in the package who have already shown us where they stand.

The President is apparently being advised that this deal is worth the price, but I strongly disagree.

Congressman Lewis, you may be the only person who has the moral authority to convince the President that he shouldn’t accept a package that rewards a champion of voter suppression, having so famously risked your life to enhance voting rights for all citizens.

In this time of challenge and controversy, I urge you to do more than simply to protect the President from criticism by your constituents.  I urge you to use your moral authority to convince the President to leave a legacy in Georgia of judges of whom we can all be proud.  Ask the President to reject this deal and embrace a more traditional process of judicial selection – a process in which the voices of your constituents, and the people of the Northern District of Georgia, are heard.

Charles Johnson | Holland & Knight
1201 West Peachtree Street, N.E., One Atlantic Center, Suite 2000 | Atlanta GA 30309
Phone 404.817.8530 | Fax 404.881.0470
charles.johnson@hklaw.com | www.hklaw.com