Over the past two years, by not fulfilling its duty to fully vet President Donald Trump’s federal judicial nominees, the Senate Judiciary Committee has made it clear that justice through fair courts was not and is not on its mind.
We recently celebrated a hard-fought victory in keeping Thomas Farr — a man long linked to racist voter suppression in my state of North Carolina — from being confirmed as a federal judge. But we remain cautious because the key documents that made his past impossible to ignore easily could have been available to all senators more than a year ago had the Judiciary Committee made any effort to obtain them.
Activists from North and South Carolina and other states who are dedicated to fair courts and civil rights traveled to Washington, D.C., multiple times to tell senators what we had long known about the nominee. We were finally able to get the audience, ear and open mind of Sen. Tim Scott. At our urging, he pored over Farr’s record and announced his opposition to the nomination.
Sen. Scott said he relied on a just-published 1991 Justice Department memo from an investigation of voter intimidation against African-Americans by the Jesse Helms reelection campaign in 1990. Perhaps no recent senator better exemplifies the crushing injustice of Jim Crow than Jesse Helms. All Americans would have known about that memo long ago if the Judiciary Committee had been doing its job.
Farr was the Helms campaign’s lawyer, and he told the committee in 2017 that he had not known about the schemes beforehand. This was hard to swallow for us North Carolinians who for years have fought against measures to prevent African-Americans from voting — measures regularly defended by Farr. But Chairman Chuck Grassley didn’t pursue the issue.
Then new information arose: A member of the Justice Department’s investigation team said that Farr had been directly involved in plotting the racist voter intimidation, but Chairman Grassley denied every request to call Farr back for another hearing. Even worse, Grassley didn’t try to get the records from the Justice Department’s investigation. We only learned about the 1991 memo when it was published in the Washington Post, just days before Farr’s expected confirmation vote.
Chairman Grassley had several opportunities to do the right thing. But at every fork in the road, he chose the wrong path, the path of injustice.
I wish this was the only time in these past two years that the committee had walked away from its duty to vet those whose sacred task is to protect the rights of the vulnerable and ensure that justice is done.
When important information comes out after a nominee’s hearing, the committee should hold a second hearing. As one example, Chairman Grassley chose not to call Alabama nominee Brett Talley back to explain internet posts praising the Ku Klux Klan, among other disturbing revelations. Instead, the chairman let the nomination remain on the Senate floor so Republican leaders could try to garner enough votes to confirm him.
Nominees whose testimony turns out to be false or misleading during their hearings should have to explain themselves to the committee in public. Why would the Judiciary Committee knowingly do nothing in those circumstances, when its job is to thoroughly vet every nominee? But that’s what’s happening with nominees like Wendy Vitter of Louisiana, where there is actual video contradicting her sworn testimony.
In other cases, the chairman has rushed hearings for nominees who have then been found to be unqualified by the American Bar Association. Ideally, the chairman would wait for the ABA evaluation. And if not, then he should hold a second hearing. That is why we have a Judiciary Committee in the first place.
These last two years have seen too many judicial nominees with records indicating that they believe justice and equality are not for all. At a time when our state and country’s democratic institutions are under increasing pressure, we rely on the courts to protect us. But they can’t do that if its judges aren’t vetted properly through a fair-minded constitutionalist lens.
While we cautiously celebrate our win after Farr’s nomination tanked, the war continues. With a new chapter for the Judiciary Committee starting this month with Sen. Lindsey Graham as chairman, we must remain vigilant promoters of what is good and just at every step in the process.
Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., said it best: “An individual has not started living until he can rise above the narrow confines of his individualistic concerns to the broader concerns of all humanity.”
I am praying that Sen. Graham has the wisdom and the heart to let the committee fulfill its mission and do its job with integrity, not just with a few in mind, but for all.
The Rev. Dr. T. Anthony Spearman is president of the North Carolina NAACP and a South Carolina native.