Sewell pushes for more black federal judges
WASHINGTON — Civil rights advocates are encouraging President Barack Obama to nominate an African-American to the 11th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals, which would be a first from Alabama.
The high-level court, one step below the U.S. Supreme Court, has had only two black judges in its history, both from Florida.
The latest opening — created when Judge Joel Dubina of Montgomery took semi-retirement in October — will be the first chance a Democratic president has had to appoint someone from Alabama to the 11th Circuit, which was created in 1981.
Race is a significant issue for the Deep South circuit, which has a combined black population of about 7.2 million. The 11th Circuit hears appeals from Florida, Georgia and Alabama, and is a source of many high-profile discrimination cases involving voting, employment and redistricting.
Rep. Terri Sewell, D-Birmingham, is the lone black member of Alabama’s congressional delegation and said diversity should be a priority.
“I think now is not the time to falter on the president’s commitment to diversifying the bench, and that is especially true on the 11th Circuit,” Sewell said Tuesday. “Alabama has some very talented African-American lawyers who should be considered.”
And U.W. Clemon, Alabama’s first black federal judge who is now in private practice in Birmingham, is also hoping for a black nominee.
“It would be historic,” Clemon said.
The Alabama Democratic Party and an advisory committee to Sewell have interviewed several black candidates for the 11th Circuit job, and many of their names have been forwarded to the White House for consideration.
But the decision does not rest solely with Democrats. Federal judicial nominees must win confirmation by the U.S. Senate, a process that has been politically contentious for many years. And when the two home-state senators are from a different political party than the president, the politics are even more complicated. Traditionally, a candidate that does not have the support of his home state senators is unlikely to even be nominated.
In interviews Tuesday on Capitol Hill, Alabama GOP Sens. Richard Shelby and Jeff Sessions said they are working with the White House to find qualified nominees for the 11th Circuit and two other vacancies on lower federal courts in Huntsville and Montgomery.
“I’m interested in the best qualified nominees that we can get, realizing that we have a Democratic president and a Democratic Senate,” Shelby said. “My idea is not to rubber stamp anybody politically because those are very important lifetime jobs. I think diversity is important, but qualifications should trump everything. Oftentimes you can have diversity and qualifications. I believe that.”
Sessions is a member of the Senate Judiciary Committee, which reviews nominees. He declined to discuss any potential nominees or the issue of diversity.
“There are many factors one can consider in appointments but fundamentally I hope the president will nominate somebody who is committed to the rule of law, is hardworking and honest, and understands they serve under the law and under the Constitution and they’re not above it,” Sessions said.
There are eight judges on the 11th Circuit on active status: six white, one black and one Hispanic, according to the Federal Judicial Center.
So far in his presidency, Obama has nominated five people to the 11th Circuit. Two have been confirmed and three are pending in the Senate. Of the five, four are white and one is Hispanic. The lone black judge on the 11th Circuit now is Judge Charles Wilson from Florida, appointed by former President Bill Clinton.
A possible contender for the 11th Circuit job is U.S. District Judge Abdul Kallon of Birmingham, who is black. Sessions and Shelby consented when Obama nominated him to his current job, and he was confirmed unanimously by the Senate in 2009.
“Should the president nominate him, he’d have my full support,” Sewell said. “He has shown himself to be an outstanding jurist.”
Elevating Kallon would create a third vacancy in Alabama, and leave the state with zero black federal judges. Judges Lynwood Smith of Huntsville and Myron Thompson moved to senior status, or semi-retirement, in August.
“To elevate one black judge to a higher court and give up racial diversity on the lower court is a return to the past and a major step backward, not forward,” Sewell said.
Sewell said her screening committee found a strong pool of several qualified black lawyers and judges.
“I want this White House and our senators to know the importance of the lower federal courts also being diversified,” Sewell said. “I would suggest we also fill some of those vacancies on the lower federal court with African-Americans as well, and that’s a point that I will continue to make.”
David Bositis, acting vice president of the Civic Engagement and Governance Institute at the Joint Center for Political and Economic Studies, said a diverse bench in the South is critical because the region is dominated by mostly white, conservative state legislatures.
“Race still motivates a lot of politics and decision-making,” Bositis said. Having more black judges would bring “a sensitivity to issues involving African-Americans and justice,” he said.
The NAACP Legal Defense Fund, one of the groups that represented black residents of Shelby County in an effort to preserve key sections of the Voting Rights Act, is also calling for more black judges in Alabama.
“It is a historic moment in Alabama’s federal judiciary because of the number of vacancies and the stakes involved,” said Leslie Proll, director of the Washington office of the NAACP LDF.