Georgia's Congressional Democrats have sent a letter to President Barack Obama's White House counsel expressing shock and disappointment over a proposed deal awaiting White House approval that allowed the state's Republican senators to select four candidates for six federal judicial posts in Georgia.
The letter, sent Tuesday night to White House counsel Kathryn Ruemmler, complained that the Democratic congressional delegation's efforts to recommend candidates and keep abreast of the process to fill the state's open federal judicial seats had been stonewalled by her office.
Signed by Congressmen John Lewis, Hank Johnson, David Scott, Sanford Bishop Jr. and John Barrow, the letter seeks a meeting with Ruemmler within the next two weeks "to discuss a path forward for creating a federal judiciary through nominating and confirming the most qualified candidates" that would "take into account a diversity of views in this important selection process."
The letter refers to the Daily Report's Sept. 10 story that identified six potential nominees for the federal judiciary whose names have been sent to the White House. The proposed list of nominees were submitted as part of a deal approved by Georgia's Republican U.S. senators and Democratic lawyers in Georgia whose liaison with the White House has been Obama bundler Ken Canfield of Atlanta's Doffermyre Shields Canfield & Knowles.
A call to Ruemmler and associate counsel Christopher Kang, who has been the point man on the Georgia nominations, was routed to the White House Office of Media Affairs, which did not respond to the Daily Report's questions.
Georgia lawyers familiar with the nomination process who asked not to be identified because of the sensitivity of the negotiations have told the Daily Report that the proposed nominees for two open seats on the Eleventh Circuit are:
• Jill Pryor, a partner at Atlanta’s Bondurant, Mixson & Elmore whom President Obama has twice nominated to an open post on the Eleventh U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals.
• U.S. District Court Chief Judge Julie Carnes of the Northern District of Georgia, who was appointed by President George H.W. Bush in 1992.
U.S. Senators Saxby Chambliss and Johnny Isakson have, so far, blocked Pryor's nomination, but as part of the deal reportedly agreed to waive their objections in return for Carnes' appointment and three nominees of their choosing for the Northern District of Georgia bench.
Carnes' nomination, if confirmed, would create a fourth vacancy on the district court bench in Atlanta, where three judges who took senior status in 2009, 2010 and this year have yet to be replaced.
The single proposed Democratic nominee for U.S. District Court for the Northern District of Georgia is Leigh Martin May, a personal injury and product liability attorney at Butler Wooten & Fryhofer who is active in Democratic Party politics. May was on a 2009 list of recommended nominees compiled by a committee appointed by the Democratic congressmen who signed the letter.
The senators' picks for the Northern District are:
• Troutman Sanders partner Mark Cohen, whose name the senators put forth first in 2010 for the Northern District bench and then in 2011 for the Eleventh Circuit;
• DeKalb County State Court Judge Eleanor Ross, a former prosecutor who was appointed to the bench by Gov. Nathan Deal in 2011 and who is the only African-American on the list;
• Judge Michael Boggs of the Georgia Court of Appeals , a former Superior Court judge from the Waycross Judicial Circuit in the Southern District of Georgia.
In their letter to Ruemmler, Georgia's Democratic congressmen said they learned of the potential deal from the Daily Report. "We were disappointed, shocked, and chagrined when we recently read reports of the White House decision to cut a deal on these judgeships with the Republican senators," the letter states.
Since the Democratic congressional delegation forwarded a slate of candidates to the White House counsel in 2009, the congressmen said they have contacted the office seeking meetings on the federal judicial vacancies "on several occasions."
"To date, we have neither received any correspondence in response to those requests nor have we received any information with respect to your process," the letter said. "We feel strongly that better opportunities should have been available to value our experience, input, and insight in the judge selections for Georgia."
Only one of the candidates on the delegation's original list to fill vacancies on the Northern District bench—Amy Totenberg —was nominated by the White House and confirmed by the U.S. Senate. Steve Jones, a former Superior Court judge in Athens, was on a list of potential nominees compiled by the committee for a federal judgeship in the Middle District. After that post went to a Macon lawyer, the president nominated Jones to the Northern District bench. Jones and Totenberg were both confirmed by the U.S. Senate in 2011.
In seeking a meeting with the White House counsel, the congressmen said they wanted "to ensure that we have an opportunity to work with the Administration and Georgia's senators to ensure that the best candidates are nominated."
Their letter noted that although they have submitted several candidates for nomination to the federal bench in Georgia during the last two sessions of Congress, "Our Senate colleagues put none of these names forward."
One of those candidates was V. Natasha Perdew Silas, a federal public defender in Atlanta. The president nominated Silas and U.S. Magistrate Judge Linda Walker —both African-American women—to the federal bench in 2011. Silas' name was among those the congressional committee had recommended in 2009.
Walker was recommended by a six-man committee of lawyers who have been advising Chambliss and Isakson on federal judicial appointments. U.S. Senate Judiciary Committee staff told the Daily Report that the two women were nominated as part of a package deal, but Georgia's senators opposed Silas and refused to return their blue slips to the committee, which would have allowed her confirmation hearings to proceed. The White House subsequently withdrew both nominations.
In their letter to the White House counsel, the Democratic congressmen insisted it is "essential" that they participate in selecting candidates for nomination to the federal bench "to ensure a representative federal judiciary in Georgia."
"Although the Constitution tasks the Senate with providing 'advice and consent' on judicial nominees, we further believe that Georgia's Democratic congressmen will meaningfully contribute to this process by including both chambers to ensure that Georgia gets the very best talent available," the letter said.