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, D-GA, looks on during a news conference on Capitol Hill, January 16, 2014 in Washington, DC.
National Journal
Elahe Izadi
May 15, 2014, 1 a.m.

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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