Politics

05.13.14

Liberals Against an Obama Judge

This time, it’s not just Republicans who might scuttle an Obama judicial nominee Tuesday but Democrats—who are incensed at Michael Boggs’s record as a Georgia lawmaker.

One of President Obama’s most controversial judicial nominees will finally get a hearing Tuesday when the Senate Judiciary Committee considers Michael Boggs for a lifetime appointment to Georgia’s federal bench.

Boggs has been a state judge for the last 10 years, but it is his time as a Democrat in the Georgia state House from 2001 to 2004 that has liberal interest groups and even Democratic lawmakers in open rebellion against the White House. The nominee’s record, they say, proves he is racist, homophobic, and so philosophically conservative that he would not be able to render a fair judgment on cases before his court.

But people who know Boggs say the judge is the one who is not getting a fair hearing. They describe a man whose career is one long focused on justice, briefly interrupted by politics, and currently in the crosshairs of a political firestorm that has more to do with national interest group fundraising than with Boggs’s approach to the law. Ultimately it will be up to the senators on the committee to decide, and Tuesday’s hearing will be crucial to that process.

Civil rights and other progressive groups are particularly concerned about a number of votes Boggs cast as a Democratic state representative for the small south Georgia town of Blackshear. These included a vote to keep the Confederate “stars and bars” emblem on the state’s flag; a vote to require minors seeking an abortion to be accompanied by a parent or guardian with a state-issued ID; and a bill that Boggs introduced to amend Georgia’s constitution to ban same-sex marriage.

Illyse Hogue, president of NARAL Pro-Choice America, said Boggs’s voting record reveals prejudices that should disqualify him from the federal bench.

“Michael Boggs has demonstrated a fundamental misunderstanding of constitutional freedoms as defined by the Constitution for anyone whose life doesn’t look like his,” Hogue said. “Again and again, he went above and beyond to put his personal bias, which is an anti-abortion bias, ahead of the rule of law.”

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Michael Boggs gestures on the House floor at the Georgia State Capitol in Atlanta on April 7, 2004. (Gregory Smith/AP)

A group of 27 civil rights groups, including the NAACP, Human Rights Campaign, National Council of La Raza, and AARP joined the abortion-rights forces in their criticism Monday and expressed their reservations about Boggs in a letter to all 100 senators. “We find his conservative record deeply troubling, particularly when it comes to issues of race and same-sex marriage,” they wrote.

Rep. David Scott, an African-American lawmaker who served for a year in the legislature with Boggs, also has been vocal in his opposition to the nomination. Scott asked Obama adviser Valerie Jarrett to encourage the president to drop his support for Boggs and has pointed repeatedly to the Boggs pick as a stain on President Obama’s legacy as the first black president. Scott told the Los Angeles Times this week that Obama “should have had the guts to say, ‘You think I can do this to my own black people, nominate a man who would keep the vicious symbol of segregation and white supremacy?’”

But Larry Walker, who worked to remove the Confederate symbol from Georgia’s flag when he was Georgia’s House majority leader, said he does not think Boggs’s position in 2001 should keep him off the federal bench today.

“He wasn’t with me on that issue, but that doesn’t mean I don’t still think highly of him,” Walker said. “He is a very kind, very honorable, very decent, sensitive person. He’s a very good judge.”

The White House also is standing beside Boggs, both privately and publicly.

“If you’re Harry Reid, why would you want Mary Landrieu or Joe Manchin or Mark Pryor to take a vote on Michael Boggs?" the staffer said. "Why would you let that happen?”

White House spokesman Eric Schultz pointed out that Boggs’s name was put forward as part of an agreement with Georgia’s two Republican senators through a process known as “blue slipping,” which gives home state senators veto authority over Obama’s picks. The Georgia deal resulted in seven federal judicial nominees for the state, filling some slots that have been vacant for more than three years. In addition to Boggs, the slate includes five women, some of whom will be the first African-American federal judges in the history of the state.

But Schultz also was quick to say Obama believes Boggs is qualified on his own merits.

“Based on Judge Boggs’s 10-year track record as a state trial and appellate court judge, the president believes he is qualified for the federal bench,” Schultz said. “Of all the recent criticisms offered against Michael Boggs, not one is based on his record as a judge for the past 10 years.”

To Schultz’s point, Hogue did not critique Boggs’s rulings at the state level. “He never heard a case on our issues, so we have nothing to go on but his legislative record,” she said.

Above and beyond his judicial record, a White House official said Boggs has been a leader on criminal justice reform, an area of personal interest both for the president and Attorney General Eric Holder

Michael Thompson, director of the nonpartisan Council of State Governments Justice Center, where Boggs sits on the board, said Boggs has been “at the forefront” of reform efforts in Georgia.

Thompson described Boggs as accessible, thoughtful, and deeply concerned about what happens to convicted criminals once they serve their jail time and try to reenter society.

Boggs co-chaired a state council that recommended exceptions for mandatory minimum sentences, reducing sentences for certain nonviolent offenders, and providing job training and opportunities for people coming out of prisons.

“All I can say is from my perspective, Judge Boggs has everything you would want from somebody in the judiciary,” Thompson said. “He’s just incredibly knowledgeable and thoughtful, really interested in larger system issues. I would think anybody would want to avail themselves of the kind of expertise and perspective and thoughtfulness that he has to offer.”

Sen. Richard Blumenthal (D-CT), who will chair Tuesday’s hearing, said Boggs’s “past record and statements raise significant questions.”

Blumenthal said Boggs will get a full and fair hearing, but a senior Democratic staffer added that the politics of Boggs’s nomination make for a tough vote in an election year.

“If you’re Harry Reid, why would you want Mary Landrieu or Joe Manchin or Mark Pryor to take a vote on Michael Boggs?” the staffer said. "Why would you let that happen?”