Mark Cohen, Eleanor Ross, Leslie Abrams
Mark Cohen, Eleanor Ross, Leslie Abrams ()

Assistant U.S. attorney Leslie Abrams and DeKalb State Court Judge Eleanor Ross made history Tuesday when they were confirmed by the U.S. Senate to become the first African-American women to serve as lifetime-appointed federal district court judges in Georgia.

Abrams, confirmed 100-0, will assume the post vacated by U.S. District Judge Louis Sands in the Middle District of Georgia in Albany. Sands took senior status in April.

Ross, Abrams’ fellow nominee, was confirmed by unanimous voice vote shortly after Abrams. Shebecomes the first African-American woman to serve on the Northern District of Georgia bench, which is headquartered in Atlanta.

In another unanimous voice vote, the Senate confirmed longtime Troutman Sanders partner Mark Cohen as a judge on the Northern District of Georgia bench.

“This day is a long time coming,” said Leslie Proll, director of the NAACP Legal Defense & Educational Fund’s office in Washington. Ross and Abrams’ confirmations “advance judicial diversity in Georgia.”

“But,” she added, “more progress should be made.”

Until Abrams and Ross were confirmed, U.S. Magistrate Judge Linda Walker in Atlanta had been the first and only African-American woman to hold a federal judgeship in Georgia. Walker’s post is not a presidential appointment; she was named by the judges of the Northern District and serves at their pleasure. President Barack Obama had nominated Walker to a federal district judgeship in 2011 along with federal public defender Natasha Perdew Silas. The deal collapsed when Sens. Johnny Isakson and Saxby Chambliss refused Silas.

On Wednesday, Ross said she had greeted her Tuesday night confirmation with “a big sigh of relief.” Ross’s nomination, announced by the White House 11 months ago, was part of a seven-nominee deal with Georgia’s Republican senators. Tuesday’s confirmations, with the exception of one nomination that remains stalled in the Senate Judiciary committee, fulfills the deal.

“I certainly am honored to sit on this bench, one before which I practiced as a federal prosecutor,” Ross said of her new post. “I am coming in with the utmost respect for the judges on the bench.”

“I am very excited to get started,” she added.

Ross received her law degree from the University of Houston in 1994 after earning her undergraduate degree in public communication from American University. From 1994 to 1996, Ross was an assistant district attorney for Tarrant County in Fort Worth, Texas. In Georgia she served a year as a DeKalb County assistant solicitor-general, three years as an assistant U.S. attorney, and eight years as a Fulton County prosecutor. She was named Fulton County’s assistant district attorney of the year in 2010. Gov. Nathan Deal appointed Ross to the DeKalb State Court bench in 2011.

Cohen, whose name was first put forward as a possible nominee by Georgia’s senators in 2010, called his confirmation “both a privilege and a great responsibility.”

“I’m very appreciative of President Obama and both of our senators … for their continued support through this process,” he said. Troutman Sanders in Atlanta, where Cohen has been a longtime partner, released a statement by firm chairman Robert Webb Jr. on Wednesday calling Cohen “a wonderful partner and a trusted advisor to his clients.”

“While we are sad to see him go, we know he will be an excellent addition to the federal bench,” Webb said.

During his 15 years at Troutman, Cohen represented both private and government clients in federal and state litigation at the trial and appellate levels. Prior to joining Troutman, Cohen spent 13 years as an assistant and senior assistant attorney general, representing the state in both state and federal courts. From 1995 to 1998, Cohen served as executive counsel and chief of staff for Gov. Zell Miller. Cohen earned his undergraduate and law degrees at Emory University.

Abrams could not be reached Wednesday. But her sister, Georgia House Minority Leader Stacey Abrams, said, “We are incredibly proud of her.” Abrams said she was watching CSPAN and cheering as the Senate vote was cast.

“Leslie has always been an extraordinary woman,” Abrams added. “She has been a voice for the community and has worked hard and tirelessly her entire legal career to balance the needs of individuals and the needs of justice, and finds extraordinary means to bring the two together.”

Leslie Abrams earned her law degree from Yale University in 2002 after getting her bachelor’s degree at Brown University. She worked as an associate at what is now Kilpatrick Townsend & Stockton in Atlanta and at Skadden, Arps, Slate, Meagher and Flom in Washington before joining the staff of the U.S. attorney in Atlanta in 2010 as an AUSA.

Before the Senate votes, Isakson and Chambliss took the floor to praise the three nominees and commend them to their Senate colleagues. In urging confirmation for the nominees, Isakson said, “All are extremely competent, talented individuals.” The senator then thanked the White House “and all those who worked with us to come up with a package of judges to fill the vacancies.”

Chambliss also thanked former White House counsel Kathryn Ruemmler, saying, “We would not be here today if Kathy had not demonstrated great legal skills in working this package and putting this package together.”

The three nominees who were confirmed Tuesday night were part of a package deal that included the two newest judges on the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Eleventh Circuit—Julie E. Carnes and Jill Pryor—and Leigh Martin May, who was confirmed as a judge on the Northern District of Georgia bench last week. That deal also included Georgia Court of Appeals Judge Michael Boggs, whose nomination to the Northern District bench has stalled in the Judiciary Committee due to controversy surrounding his tenure as a Georgia state legislator from 2001 to 2004.

After the Senate confirmed the Georgia nominees, U.S. Senate Judiciary Committee Chairman Patrick Leahy, D-Vt., apologized that they had to wait so long for a confirmation vote.

The Judiciary Committee sent their nominations to the full Senate in June.

“On this side of the aisle, we cleared every one of those for a voice vote months ago,” he said. “I am sorry your side wanted to delay it, but I see a 100-0 vote, and the voice votes are accurate. But I compliment the two senators form Georgia for sticking with their nominees.”

Glenn Sugameli, a senior attorney for Defenders of Wildlife in Washington and founder of Judging the Environment, which conducts research to educate the public on the importance of lifetime federal judicial nominees, said Tuesday night’s voice votes on Cohen and Ross signal a possible thaw in relations between Senate Democrats and Republicans.

“The voice votes are encouraging because they are the first voice votes since the filibuster rules were changed for judicial nominations,” he said. “Obviously, when people come through committee unopposed, they are supported by the home state senators. Oftentimes they are filling judicial emergencies. There is no reason to delay for a filibuster vote … only to have them unanimously confirmed.”

“I don’t know whether this is an exception … or whether this is a return to the normal practice of voice votes for unopposed nominations.”

While we are sad to see him go, we know he will be an excellent addition to the federal bench.

—Robert Webb, Troutman Sanders’ chairman, speaking of partner Mark Cohen’s confirmation