Representatives of several civil rights organizations on Friday called on the White House to remove state Court of Appeals Judge Michael Boggs from a list of expected nominees to the federal bench in Georgia. Their objection to Boggs stems from his vote in 2001 as a state legislator from Waycross to retain Georgia’s old state flag, which was embedded with the Confederate battle emblem.
At a news conference in front of the Richard Russell Federal Building in downtown Atlanta, State Sen. Vincent Fort, D-Atlanta, called on President Obama to drop Boggs from consideration for a federal judgeship in Atlanta.
“Michael Boggs, when he was a state legislator, voted against changing the Georgia flag with the Confederate emblem on it,” Fort said. “He voted for the Confederate flag…. We are very concerned that a judge, while a legislator, in the 21st century, voted for the Confederate flag. It is reasonable for the public to be concerned about whether he is committed to fairness…. We think it is not right for this man to sit on the federal bench.”
Boggs could not be reached for comment. Nominees for federal judgeships usually avoid public comment under protocols set by the White House and Congress.
Fort and other speakers at the news conference declined to name anyone who they think should be considered as Boggs’ replacement on the list.
Speakers at Friday’s news conference included State Senate Minority Leader Steve Henson; Helen Butler, executive director of the Georgia Coalition for the People’s Agenda; Mary Ross, interim executive director of the NAACP Atlanta branch; attorney Francys Johnson, state president of the NAACP of Georgia; and Amanda Hill-Attkisson, program director of Georgia Women’s Action for New Directions. They criticized the lack of transparency in a largely secret selection process that they say has shut out minorities while allowing the state’s Republican U.S. senators too much latitude to name candidates who would reflect a judicial philosophy far more conservative than President Obama’s.
They criticized the list of five recommended nominees and one current nominee – all of whom have been submitted to the White House with the approval of U.S. Senators Saxby Chambliss and Johnny Isakson – for including only one African-American.
Their complaints echoed those of Georgia’s five Democratic House members, who last week met with White House counsel Kathryn Ruemmler and Christopher Kang, senior counsel to the president, after sending a letter expressing their “shock and disappointment” over the list, which contains four Republican selections and two by Democrats.
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.
• U.S. District Court Chief Judge Julie Carne, who was appointed by President George H.W. Bush in 1992.
Chambliss and Isakson have blocked Pryor’s nomination, but agreed to waive their objections in return for Carnes’ appointment and three nominees of their choosing.
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 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 after he defended Georgia’s voter identification law in a federal lawsuit;
• DeKalb County State Court Judge Eleanor Ross, a former prosecutor who was appointed to the bench by Governor Nathan Deal in 2011 and the only African-American on the list;
• Boggs, a former Superior Court judge in the Waycross Judicial Circuit and a Deal appointee to the appeals court.
The Democrats’ only proposed district court nominee is Leigh Martin May, a personal injury and product liability attorney at Butler Wooten & Fryhofer.
Former Governors Zell Miller and Roy Barnes fought to strip the Confederate battle emblem from the state flag. Miller lost his fight, but Barnes introduced a redesigned banner – approved by the Georgia General Assembly in 2001 – that shrank the Confederate battle emblem.
Boggs was one of 82 members of the Georgia House of Representatives who voted not to replace the old state flag, which the General Assembly in 1956 had changed to include the Confederate battle flag following the U.S. Supreme Court’s ruling in Brown v. Board of Education. Butler of the Coalition for the People’s Agenda said that civil rights leader Dr. Joseph Lowery, who founded the coalition, has been in contact with the White House and U.S. Attorney General Eric Holder to express his concerns about the list of expected nominees and his request that the nomination process be more open and inclusive. “Dr. Lowery has asked the president to stand his ground, just as he did during the [government] shut-down,” she said. “We want a representative court to come from the area in which they live, not from a different area. We want our people to be included in the process.”
Butler also expressed concerns, although not by name, about Cohen because he defended challenges to the state’s voter photo ID law. She questioned whether Cohen could “do the fair thing” with regard to voting rights issues, saying that the law he had defended as an appointed special assistant attorney general was intended to hinder and suppress minority voting in Georgia.
Cohen declined to comment. But Norman Underwood, the chairman of Governor Zell Miller’s Judicial Nominating Commission and one of Cohen’s law partners, said Friday that Cohen had defended the state at the request of then-AG Thurbert Baker.
“I think most lawyers understand the position that Thurbert and Mark were in litigating that issue,” Underwood said. Baker “had taken an oath to defend the state’s position on these kind of cases… . He got Mark because Mark was an expert in election law and … had developed this expertise over decades representing the state in reapportionment cases.”
Underwood also said that when Cohen served as Miller’s executive counsel, he worked closely with the governor as Miller began a concerted effort to appoint what became an unprecedented number of African-Americans as judges across the state. “Mark’s role in the judicial appointment record in that administration should be convincing evidence of his sense of fairness when it comes to diversity within the judicial system, and that should be a comforting part of any record when somebody is evaluating judicial nominations,” Underwood said.