Sunday, April 6, 2014

Community Involvement in Federal Judical Selection in the Carter Years - The Georgia Experience

In 1976, Presidential candidate Jimmy Carter argued that judges should be selected on the basis of merit alone; that panels of lawyers and laymen should be appointed to suggest qualified nominees. This was at a time when there were no judges of color on Georgia’s federal courts.

With the Presidency and the Congress in the hands of a single party for the first time in several years, Congress in 1977 enacted the Omnibus Judgeship Act, which created 152 new federal judgeships, which resulted the largest one-shot increase in the nation’s history up to that time.  The Act also empowered the Administration to establish “standards and guidelines” for choosing federal district judges, including a guideline that urged the appointment of more African-American and female judges.  While the Justice Department emphasized that the Act merely established “guidelines,” the President urged individual Senators to set up merit selection commissions, and the Office of White House Counsel was fairly aggressive in urging the consideration of candidates from diverse backgrounds.
President Carter was ultimately called upon to fill six positions on the Northern District of Georgia, and there was considerable public involvement in the discussions leading to the filling of these positions. 
In 1978, the Executive Committee of Atlanta’s Gate City Bar Association spent considerable effort raising awareness about the total lack of African-American federal judges in the Deep South, and the suggestion soon began to take hold that at least one of the Atlanta appointees should be an African-American.  The Presidents of the Gate City Bar Association and the Georgia Conference of Black Lawyers traveled to Washington to meet with Deputy Attorney General Michael Eagan who, within the Justice Department, had the responsibility for coordinating the judicial selection process.  In this meeting, Egan felt the need to look outside the Northern District of Georgia for qualified candidates, suggesting that the President of the Georgia Conference should relocate to Atlanta from Augusta, or that a prominent State Representative should relocate to Atlanta from Savannah.  Among Atlanta’s majority bar, there was considerable sentiment that one of the appointees should be African-American, and that that the appointment should go to one of the very few African-American partners in a majority law firm. 
Among community-based groups within the African American community there was considerable feeling that, because the community was so highly diverse, there should be more than one African-American appointee.  Moreover, prevailing community-based sentiment was that the appointees should be individuals who had paid their “dues” by serving the community.  Many who shared this sentiment urged the appointment of Horace T. Ward.  Ward had been the first plaintiff to challenge segregation at the University of Georgia, had been part of the legal team that brought an end to that segregation, and had been part of the legal team which brought an end to the all-white jury pools that existed in some Georgia counties.  He had been 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.  He had been the second African-American to serve in the Georgia State Senate since reconstruction, and one of his State Senate colleagues was now President of the United States. 
Both of Georgia’s Senators frequently reached out to members of the community to gauge community sentiment with respect to these judicial appointments, either directly or through members of their respective staffs (including Curtis Atkinson from the staff of Senior Senator Herman Talmadge, and Tommy Dortch from the staff of Junior Senator Sam Nunn). Senator Talmadge had served as Governor at the time of Horace Ward’s unsuccessful application to the University of Georgia.  In a meeting with the President of the Gate City Bar Association, Senator Talmadge made it clear that he and Judge Ward had some "unfinished business" to take care of, and that the pending judicial appointments presented a suitable opportunity to take care of it.
In 1979, Atlanta hosted a meeting of the National Bar Association's Judicial Council, which was then chaired by Judge Ward. The luncheon speaker for the meeting was the American Bar Association's Immediate Past President William B. Spann, Jr., who took the occasion to urge the appointment of Judge Ward to the federal district court in Atlanta.
Later that year, Judge Ward became the only person of color to be nominated and confirmed to Georgia’s federal courts under President Carter.  In the neighboring State of Alabama, President Carter appointed two judges of color.

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