By Daniel Malloy - The Atlanta Journal-Constitution
When three civil rights legends on whose necks you placed the Presidential Medal of Freedom speak, you listen.
But as President Barack Obama has shown, you don’t necessarily change your mind.
The outcry from Georgia’s Democratic members of Congress and civil rights leaders about the president’s judicial appointments has been heard inside 1600 Pennsylvania Ave. White House senior adviser Valerie Jarrett, who has a close personal relationship with both Obamas, and counsel Kathy Ruemmler had four members of the Congressional Black Caucus in for a chat last week about judicial appointments.
The remarkable schism between Obama and some of his core political allies went national after a powerful news conference at Ebenezer Baptist Church featuring the Rev. Joseph Lowery, Rep. John Lewis and the Rev. C.T. Vivian denouncing a six-judge slate proposed to fill longstanding vacancies in Georgia’s federal courts. That’s Medal of Freedom classes of 2009, 2010 and 2013, respectively.
They want more than one racial minority (DeKalb County state court Judge Eleanor Ross) in a group presiding over a state that’s only 63 percent white. They object to Judge Michael Boggs’ vote to keep the old Georgia state flag, featuring a Confederate emblem, when he was in the Legislature and attorney Mark Cohen’s defense of Georgia’s voter-ID law in court.
But at its heart, this is a power struggle. Will Obama stand up to Republican senators who hold an effective veto over home-state judicial nominees? Will House Democrats get to exert influence, even though their body has no formal role in the nominations process?
Rep. David Scott, an Atlanta Democrat, said he happened upon the judicial nominees meeting as he arrived at the White House for a larger get-together on Obama’s agenda. He used the opportunity to give Jarrett an impassioned plea to take back the nominees: “This is an African-American president, and that’s what’s hurting so many of the people,” Scott told Jarrett.
Her response: “She just stood there and she just listened and looked at me.”
Georgia Republican Sens. Johnny Isakson and Saxby Chambliss negotiated with the White House for years as the vacancies piled up, straining the Northern District of Georgia and Atlanta-based 11th Circuit Court of Appeals. By custom of the Senate Judiciary Committee, home-state senators must approve of nominees, and Chambliss and Isakson had used the power to block White House choices.
One of Georgia’s slots has been open since 2009. Four have been declared “judicial emergencies” by the U.S. Courts for the workload of the court and the length of the opening.
After lengthy, sometimes acrimonious negotiations, the nominee deal came together late last year. The nominees are still being vetted by the Senate Judiciary Committee staff, and when the process is done Chambliss and Isakson say they will submit “blue slips” to allow the picks to go forward.
The White House has given no indication that it is backing off the deal, either. To respond in the spin war, the White House communications team put together a social media-friendly graphic touting all the diversity in Obama’s judicial picks, from minorities to women to gays.
Critics argue those gains have come in Democratic states, as Obama is not fighting for diversity in Southern states with high black populations and white Republican senators.
Scott hopes to make his case in front of the Senate Judiciary Committee, a quest that remains highly unlikely. He recently sat at the committee offices for an hour, he said, hoping to catch Chairman Patrick Leahy, D-Vt., in person. When Leahy never came by, Scott left a note.
“I don’t know whether I can change anybody’s mind,” Scott said. “But Georgia and my people of Georgia deserve to be heard on this. … To shut Democrats out the way this White House has done, that’s a dastardly deed."