Left to Right, Francys Johnson, Robert Highsmith & Mawuli Mel Davis were panelists discussing Judicial Diversity in the 21st Century,at the 2014 State Bar of Georgia Annual Meeting. (John Disney/Daily Report)
The Judicial Nominating Commissions of Gov. Nathan Deal and his predecessor became a target of outrage during a three-hour discussion Friday about ways to improve diversity in federal and state courts.
The topic packed the room at the State Bar’s annual meeting at Amelia Island and kept lawyers and judges talking about it afterward.
“It just defies belief,” said Mawuli Davis of Davis Bozeman in Decatur, referring to the composition of Deal’s Judicial Nominating Commission, which includes one African-American member out of 20. Davis represented Wayne Kendall, an attorney who sued the JNC this year to force compliance with an open records request for information about applicants for judicial positions.
Moderator Meka Ward of Thomas Kennedy Sampson & Tompkins, president of the Gate City Bar Association, asked the panel whether state law should require the JNC to include members who represent all portions of the population of Georgia.
Davis said yes.
Also answering yes was panelist Francys Johnson Jr., a solo attorney from Statesboro, who is president of the NAACP of Georgia. Johnson said the hurdle to progress is a “fundamental failure to understand American racism.”
“It’s about a legal construct,” he said. “It’s about a political expediency that protects it.”
Davis and Johnson took aim in the debate at Robert Highsmith Jr. of Holland & Knight, a member of Deal’s JNC and that of Gov. Sonny Perdue, and the lone white male on the panel of four men.
The fourth panelist was former DeKalb State Court Judge Antonio DelCampo, who is Latino and now in private practice. He admonished minority lawyers to identify and prepare potential judges so that “it cannot be said that there were no qualified candidates.”
Highsmith made a vigorous effort to defend the diversity record of both governors he has served. He emphasized Perdue’s appointment of Georgia Supreme Court Justice Harold Melton, who is African-American, and Deal’s appointment of Georgia Court of Appeals Judge Carla Wong McMillian, who is Asian-American.
Highsmith also defended the JNC against charges of a lack of diversity, saying that the one African-American member, DeKalb County District Attorney Robert James, is a “strong voice” in the group. “To call Robert James one out of 20 is an underestimation of his influence on the commission,” Highsmith said.
Highsmith’s logic failed to impress his co-panelists, who answered that James is still one person. “I know Robert James,” said Davis. “He has limits. He doesn’t know every black lawyer in the state of Georgia.”
Then Davis asked Highsmith, “Are you telling us good things will come to those who wait? We need more than these empty promises.”
After enduring more criticism, Highsmith acknowledged, “This is a frustrating position to be in”—drawing a roar of sardonic laughter from the room.
President Barack Obama drew fire for the lack of diversity of his nominees to federal court as well. “I’m disappointed,” said Johnson. “History will judge this president harshly.”
In an earlier panel that focused on nominations to federal courts, Leslie Proll, director of the Washington office of the NAACP Legal Defense Fund, told the group that no president has appointed more African-American judges than President Jimmy Carter did in one term. Carter, she said, “still holds the gold standard.”
When Ward asked the panelists to describe how diversity—or the lack thereof—affects a community, Johnson talked about “the other Georgia,” where some counties have never had an African-American judge. He quoted Georgia Supreme Court Justice Robert Benham: “There is so much discretion in the law. Discretion is based on your experience.”