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John Lewis: The Senate's Judge Whisperer? John Lewis: The Senate's Judge Whisperer?

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John Lewis: The Senate's Judge Whisperer?

The Georgia congressman and civil-rights icon will be instrumental in how the Senate deals with Michael Boggs, a controversial White House judicial nominee.

Rep. John Lewis of Georgia(Drew Angerer/Getty Images)

photo of Elahe Izadi
May 15, 2014

Top Democratic leaders in the Senate have announced their opposition to—or sound like they need to be convinced into supporting—the confirmation of a White House judicial pick who faces liberal opposition. And they want to speak to House member and civil-rights icon John Lewis of Georgia about it before they go any further.

Majority Leader Harry Reid told BuzzFeed on Wednesday that he's opposed to the nomination of Michael Boggs to a Georgia federal District Court. Boggs cast votes as a Democratic state legislator on issues such as abortion, the Confederate flag, and same-sex marriage that cut against Democratic priorities. Reid said he planned to speak about the matter with Lewis, who has previously been vocal in his opposition to Boggs. "John Lewis is my man in Georgia," Reid said.

The No. 2 Democrat in the Senate, Majority Whip Dick Durbin, said Wednesday that he he wanted to speak with Lewis before making up his mind. Durbin sits on the Judiciary Committee and questioned Boggs about his vote as a state legislator to have the Confederate flag on the Georgia flag.


"I want to talk over some of the things Judge Boggs said yesterday," Durbin said. "John Lewis is my friend, and any federal judge in his state, where there are questions raised about race—I wouldn't consider a final vote until I talk to him personally."

Lewis is a beloved figure on the Hill, regarded highly by Democrats and Republicans alike and well respected on civil-rights issues. Lewis was beaten and suffered injuries during the 1965 march from Selma to Montgomery, Ala., on what became known as "Bloody Sunday." He was a leader in the movement during its height, serving as chairman the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee and delivering a speech at the 1963 March on Washington.

The Georgia Democrat still plays an active role on civil-rights and racial matters on the Hill. He's leading the push to pass a rewrite of a portion of the Voting Rights Act that the Supreme Court struck down last year. High-ranking Republicans, such as Majority Leader Eric Cantor, have lately been emphasizing their relationships with Lewis.

Lewis, along with other members of the Congressional Black Caucus, quickly voiced opposition to Boggs's nomination when Obama made it in December. Lewis and others held a press conference to denounce the nomination at the Atlanta church where Martin Luther King Jr. once presided, and called on Obama to withdraw the nomination.

But Senate Democrats have now turned their focus on deciding whether to approve the nomination, rather than on getting the White House to withdraw it. And it's unclear whether Lewis will push back hard now. The House is currently on recess, but before lawmakers departed Washington, Lewis declined to elaborate on the upcoming Senate hearing. "We have our hands full on this side," Lewis told The Hill.

The scheduling of Tuesday's hearing on the nomination took many CBC members by surprise. The committee record remains open for a week, so lawmakers still have time to submit questions.

Judiciary Committee Chairman Patrick Leahy said Wednesday that he hadn't reviewed the hearing record (he passed the gavel to Sen. Richard Blumenthal, a Boggs critic, to chair the hearing). The committee's split of 10 Democrats and eight Republicans means that Boggs could fail to advance to the full Senate if his nomination faces broad, immediate Democratic opposition.

Given Reid's opposition, Leahy responded, "Every senator has got a right to do what they feel is best."

The nomination came out of a deal the White House struck with Georgia's two Republican senators, who agreed to release a two-year hold they had on a Circuit Court nominee in return for the nomination. A number of other nominees are also included in the deal, but the Boggs nomination remains the most controversial; on Tuesday, Boggs faced scrutiny from Democrats over his record as a state legislator on votes ranging from same-sex marriage to abortion.

Republican Sen. Johnny Isakson of Georgia said that Reid's and Durbin's desire to speak with Lewis first "is fine. I think everybody should do their due diligence."

"We worked very hard to come up with a great package with the White House. I trust the president's judgment, [White House Counsel Kathryn] Ruemmle's judgment. All seven [nominees] are very qualified," Isakson said. "Every member ought to make their own determination."

Leahy has emphasized that senators are free to vote their conscience on the nomination and that he was not part of the deal the White House made. Both he and Durbin said early Wednesday evening they have not heard from the White House since the hearing.

"They don't bother to ask me about judges, so I wouldn't imagine they would [call]," Leahy said. "They're very busy people. They only talk to important senators."

Perhaps if White House officials really want Boggs's nomination to go through—and the administration did reiterate its support this week—they should talk to Lewis about it, too.

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