President Obama’s mixed record of minority judicial appointees

OPINION - If you ask members of the Congressional Black Caucus and some civil rights leaders, they will say the president falls short when it comes to minorities on the federal bench, especially in states such as Georgia...

Luther Vandross was outed as gay after his death.

How is President’s Obama’s record on diversity among judicial nominees?

If you ask members of the Congressional Black Caucus and some civil rights leaders, they will say the president falls short when it comes to minorities on the federal bench, especially in states such as Georgia.  But that’s only part of the story.  Obama has a record of accomplishment on diverse appointees, but he made a deal in Georgia that came up smelling not so great.  The devil’s in the details.

Members of the CBC met with White House adviser Valerie Jarrett on Wednesday to voice their concerns about a dearth of federal judges of color.  They believe that in Southern states, Obama has conceded too much to conservative Republican senators who they believe clash with the judicial philosophy of a typical Obama nominee.  As a result, the judicial picks in states such as Georgia do not reflect the diversity of the jurisdictions they serve.  The CBC wants the president to fight against GOP obstructionism.

Blame it on the blue slip.

Although the filibuster was killed in the Senate, and judicial nominees are now confirmed by a simple majority, the blue-slip process still remains.  Under this obscure and arguably anachronistic system, a president can go forward with a nominee only if the senators in the candidate’s home state approve.  This effectively gives Republican lawmakers veto power and undue influence over Obama’s appointments, even as a president should be able to promote the jurists of his choice.

Back to that deal the president made in Georgia.  As Think Progress reported, President Obama made an agreement with Senators Saxby Chambliss (R-Georgia) and Johnny Isakson (R-Georgia).  The senators agreed to stop blocking Jill Pryor’s nomination to the Eleventh Circuit Court of Appeals—as they had done for years—and the administration agreed to give most of the six judicial vacancies in Georgia to the Republicans.

Obama appointed Chief Judge Julie Carnes of the Northern District of Georgia, a George H.W. Bush nominee, to the appeals court, opening a fourth seat on the lower district court.  Under the deal, Chambliss and Isakson were allowed to select three of the four vacancies.

Two of the most objectionable Republican choices include two nominees for the district court level— Mark Cohen, who was a lead attorney defending Georgia’s discriminatory voter ID law in court, and state appeals Judge Michael Boggs, who as a legislator voted against same-sex marriage, supported abortion restrictions, and favored keeping the Confederate battle emblem on the Georgia state flag.

Only one of the nominees from Georgia, Eleanor Ross, is black, and reportedly a Republican, in a state that is nearly one-third African-American.  So, with all of the black people living in cities such as Atlanta, it is understandable that black Georgia lawmakers such as Reps. John Lewis, Hank Johnson and David Scott, and civil rights leaders such as Revs. Joseph Lowery and C. T. Vivian are concerned.

However, the Obama administration has rightly pointed out the Republican obstruction of the president’s nominees.  For example, in 2011, the Georgia senators blocked a black woman, Natasha Silas, to fill a district court seat.  In North Carolina, Republican Senator Richard Burr has used the blue slip to block Jennifer May-Parker, another African-American woman, for consideration.

And last year, Sen. Marco Rubio (R-Florida) blocked the appointment of state Circuit Judge William L. Thomas for federal judge for the Southern District of Florida—but after he and Sen. Bill Nelson, D-Florida) supported him.  Thomas would have been the first openly gay male African-American federal judge.

Meanwhile, President Obama recently nominated a diverse slate of four people for district court seats in Florida: Judge Beth Bloom and Judge Darrin P. Gayles for the Southern District of Florida (which includes Miami), and Judge Carlos Eduardo Mendoza and attorney Paul G. Byron for the U.S. District Court for the Middle District of Florida, which includes Orlando.

If confirmed, Gayles would become the first openly gay black man on the federal bench.

The numbers don’t lie, and President Obama surpasses his predecessors in the area of diversity in the federal courts.  For example, 18 percent of his confirmations were black, 12 percent were Latino, 7 percent were Asian and 63 percent were white.

Meanwhile, President Clinton’s confirmations were 16 percent black, 7 percent were Latino, 1 percent were Asian and 75 percent were white.  And Bush’s confirmations were 7 percent black, 9 percent Latino, 1 percent Asian and 82 percent white.

Obama also enjoys the highest percentage of female confirmations at 42 percent, compared to 29 percent for Clinton and 22 percent for Bush.

In the end, the president is ahead of the curve in bringing people of color and women to the federal judiciary.  However, a problem has arisen in some states, particularly Southern states where Republican senators invoke the blue slip, and black leaders perceive Obama as not fighting hard enough.

Follow David A. Love on Twitter at @davidalove