Civil rights icon John Lewis opposes controversial Obama court nominee for Georgia

Georgia congressman and civil rights icon John Lewis on Monday denounced President Barack Obama's effort to appoint a former defender of the Confederate flag to a federal judgeship in Georgia.

Lewis' condemnation of Michael Boggs could be enough to sink his chances of being confirmed by the Senate.

Lewis, a Democratic member of the House of Representatives, said Boggs' record "is in direct opposition to everything I have stood for during my career." Lewis also said that Boggs misrepresented his record in testimony before the Senate Judiciary Committee.

"I do not have a vote in the Senate, but if I did I would vote against the confirmation of Michael Boggs," Lewis said in a written statement.

Monday's condemnation by Lewis, a major figure in the civil rights movement of the 1960s, will be influential in the Senate, said Carl Tobias, a University of Richmond law professor who is an expert on the federal judicial nomination process.

"It makes it difficult for Democrats to favor him," Tobias said.

Obama's nomination of Boggs as a U.S. District Court judge for the Northern District of Georgia was already in trouble. Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid, D-Nev., said last week that he couldn't vote for him.


"He's a person who, in my opinion, is out of the mainstream and I don't think deserves to be a federal judge," Reid said.

Civil rights groups have raised objections to Boggs' record as a state legislator in Georgia from 2001 to 2004, including his vote to keep the Confederate emblem on the Georgia state flag.

Boggs also drew fire for his support of a bill to make public the names of abortion doctors and for backing a constitutional amendment to ban same-sex marriage.

Boggs, who has been a state judge for the past decade, disavowed his votes on the Confederate flag and on naming abortion doctors when asked about them at a Senate Judiciary Committee hearing last week. He told lawmakers he "may or may not" have changed his position on same-sex marriage.

Boggs' nomination was part of a deal cut between Obama and Georgia Republican Sens. Johnny Isakson and Saxby Chambliss. The senators reportedly agreed to stop blocking Obama's choice for an appellate court, Jill Pryor, in exchange for district court picks.

The compromise was intended to fill six judicial vacancies in Georgia, including the first female district judge on her court and the first African-American female lifetime-appointed judge in Georgia.

Senators traditionally hold power over the federal judicial nominations in their states through a century-old informal process known as "blue slipping." The practice enables senators from the nominees' home states to stymie confirmation if they don't signal their approval to the Judiciary Committee on a blue slip of paper.

The White House had no comment after Lewis' statement on Monday. Last week, spokesman Jay Carney said Obama stood by his choice of Boggs and considered him qualified based on his judicial record over the past decade.

Carney said the Obama administration has been trying to fill the judicial vacancies in Georgia for more than three years.

"Our choice is clear," Carney said. "Do we work with Republican senators to find a compromise, or should we leave the seats vacant? Given that option, four of these vacancies are judicial emergencies, and we believe it would be grossly irresponsible for the president to leave these seats vacant."

But Democratic representatives from Georgia didn't see it that way.

At a press conference in Atlanta after the nominees were announced last year, U.S. Rep. David Scott, a Democrat from Atlanta, said that Obama "made a terrible, tragic mistake" by nominating Boggs and Mark Cohen, an Atlanta attorney who defended the constitutionality of voter identification laws in Georgia. Critics say the laws make it harder for minorities to vote.

"We've got to lay the blame where it is," Scott said.

"This was no compromise," he said. "What the president did was capitulate."

There were questions in recent days about whether Lewis had changed his mind about opposing Boggs. Lewis, who appeared with Scott at the press conference in December, had been silent on the matter since telling the Atlanta Journal-Constitution earlier this month he "was just letting the process take place."

Then Sen. Dianne Feinstein, D-Calif., said on CNN's "State of the Union" on Sunday that she had spoken with Lewis and he "felt that this was a good ticket" of nominees.

That prompted Scott to tweet that, if the report were true, then Lewis is a "turncoat who has betrayed African-Americans, women and gays."


Lewis said Monday he had been keeping silent "out of respect for my colleagues and the Senate process."

"I did not at any time indicate my support for the Boggs nomination or say that he had the backing of the African-American community in Georgia," Lewis said.

By Sean Cockerham and Lindsay Wise

McClatchy Washington Bureau

Sean Cockerham

Sean Cockerham is a former reporter for the Anchorage Daily News. He also covered Alaska issues for McClatchy Newspapers based in Washington, D.C.