ATLANTA – Some of President Obama's staunchest supporters Monday announced their opposition to his nominees for federal courts in Georgia.
The group, which included civil rights luminaries such as Rep. John Lewis, D-Ga., the Rev. Joseph Lowery and Rev. C.T. Vivian, Georgia's black congressional delegation and a long list of African-American civil rights groups and legal associations, is protesting six nominees to the 11th Circuit Court of Appeals and the Northern District of Georgia. They say the nominees lack diversity and that one defended Georgia's voter-identification law and another supported flying the Confederate flag at the state Capitol.
"Somebody has made a tragic mistake," said Lowery, speaking from the pulpit at Ebenezer Baptist Church, Martin Luther King Jr.'s one-time congregation. "We've not come to attack the president. Somebody did this for him. And we say that he must undo it. It is insulting to come into Georgia in 2013 and bring a slate of nominees that is so unrepresentative of the state."
Lowery backed Obama early in his first presidential campaign when many black leaders were supporting Hillary Clinton; in 2009, Obama awarded him the Presidential Medal of Freedom. Obama also presented Lewis with the award in 2011 and Vivian with it earlier this year.
The group says that only one of the six nominees is African American. Also, they say that nominee Mark Cohen, an Atlanta attorney, argued in favor of Georgia's Voter ID law, which they say aims to suppress black voting power, and that nominee Michael Boggs voted to keep the Confederate battle flag emblem on the state flag when he was a state representative. Cohen and Boggs could not be reached for comment Monday.
The White House supplied statistics to say that its judicial picks are more diverse than those of previous administrations — 18% of Obama's confirmed judges have been African American, compared with 8% for George W. Bush and 16% for Bill Clinton.
Georgia Sens. Saxby Chambliss and Johnny Isakson, both Republicans, who worked with the White House to negotiate the list of nominees, said late Monday they stood by them.
"As senators, we take our constitutional duty to advise and consent very seriously," they said in a statement. "We are pleased to see the process of filling federal judicial nominations in Georgia move forward. The White House has been diligent and cooperative throughout this process, and this is a well-qualified group of nominees. We look forward to working with our colleagues in the Senate as we go through the confirmation process."
Those protesting Obama's nominees noted that federal judges played a crucial role in the civil rights movement, often enforcing laws that local judges would not. They said the White House selection process was "selective, secretive and exclusionary" and that input from Georgia's black, Democratic congressional representatives was ignored.
"This is a tragic, terrible mistake," said U.S. Rep. David Scott, an Atlanta Democrat. "We've got to lay the blame where it is." One of the nominees "is an architect of the voter suppression law in the state of Georgia, and this is an African-American president. This voter suppression is targeted to African-American people. I hope the president of the United States will hear us.
"This was no compromise," he added. "What the president did was capitulate."
Lewis, Scott and Rep. Hank Johnson, another opponent of the nominees, are all Democrats, as is Obama. When both senators in a state are in the opposition party from the president's, the president usually seeks advice on nominees from House members of his party, Lewis said. That did not happen this time, he said, adding that Georgia Democrats gave the White House a diverse list of potential nominees that was ignored or rejected.
The group is asking Obama to withdraw the nominees and start the process over. If the White House refuses, the Georgia representatives say they will speak against the nominees in confirmation hearings before the Senate Judiciary Committee.
Contributing: David Jackson in Washington, D.C.