The White House and the Congressional Black Caucus circled the wagons Thursday after a series of leaks and public statements exposed a deep divide between several black lawmakers and the Obama administration over the diversity of president’s federal judicial nominees.
Although the White House rightly argues that President Obama has put forward more women and as many African-American nominees than any president in history, black lawmakers, including iconic civil-rights leader Rep. John Lewis (D-Ga.), have criticized the White House for failing to propose enough minority judges that reflect individual states’ black populations, especially in the Deep South.
During a December press conference at Atlanta’s historic Ebenezer Baptist Church, Lewis and others singled out two white Obama nominees for Georgia, one of whom once advocated for the state’s restrictive voter-ID law and the other who voted to keep the Confederate emblem on the Georgia state flag. For months, other black lawmakers have complained to the White House about federal court vacancies in Florida, Alabama, North Carolina, and Alabama.
Last week, The Daily Beast obtained a letter signed by 41 members of the CBC warning that the administration is overseeing a federal bench in some states with “an inexcusable and unjustifiable lack of racial diversity that must be addressed.”
The most recent public rift began Wednesday, when the White House dispatched senior aide Valerie Jarrett and senior members of the White House Counsel’s Office to meet privately with top CBC members about nominations and other issues.
During the meeting, lawmakers said they expressed concern not only about the White House’s nominees, but also what they have seen as a lack of effort to get around Republican senators, who have held up, and in some cases completely blocked, candidates the CBC said were well qualified black Americans. An arcane Senate tradition known as “blue slipping” allows any individual senator to block a president’s judicial picks in their home states. Republican senators have blocked a number of the president’s picks since he took office, including minority nominees.
A White House official told The Daily Beast Wednesday’s meeting was “very positive,” while CBC Chairwoman Marcia Fudge said Jarrett had “assuaged” members’ concerns over what they see as a lack of diversity in some states. Rep. Eleanor Holmes Norton (D-DC) called it “a candid exchange.”
“During the meeting, we reiterated what we have always said—our focus has never been on the administration alone,” Holmes Norton said, adding that she is holding Republicans senators “equally responsible if African Americans the administration desires cannot be nominated or are nominated by the administration and are then unfairly held up with use of the blue-slip system.”
But some CBC members who attended a later meeting with Jarrett said they remained unsatisfied. “I asked her specifically that they should be [withdrawn]. She just didn’t say anything,” Georgia Rep. David Scott told The Hill about his conversation with Jarrett. “Do you think George Bush would have been able to do this, or any white president would have been able to do this? No.”
When The Hill ran that the story on its front page Thursday morning with the headline, “Feud escalates between Obama, black lawmakers” (which hit the Drudge Report hours later), a furious Rep. Fudge fired off an unusually aggressive statement ripping The Hill for what she called “dishonest and misleading” coverage and insisting that no feud exists.
Fudge’s pushback followed a series of recent White House efforts to defend the president’s record on judicial nominees and a softening the caucus’s criticism of him, including canceling a CBC press conference originally planned to press the president on his nominations.
Earlier in the week, the White House also launched a new section of its website to highlight the diversity of Obama’s judicial nominees. On Wednesday, President Obama announced five new federal nominees, including two women, a Latino, and Darrin Gayles, a Florida state judge who would be the first openly gay, black federal judge in the country if he were to be confirmed.
But the biggest test for the president will be the two vacancies on the federal bench in Alabama, where one of the 14 judgeships is held by a black jurist and CBC members have told the president that history has presented him with a “unique opportunity” to craft a federal judiciary that reflects the state’s diverse population. According to Senate tradition, Alabama’s two Republican senators will have to agree to any Obama nominee for the positions.