Black House members pressure Obama to name African-American to federal bench
WASHINGTON — The Congressional Black Caucus is urging President Barack Obama to nominate more African-Americans to federal judgeships, starting with Alabama.
The black House members used stinging language in a Jan. 16 letter to the White House, referring to “an inexcusable and unjustifiable lack of racial diversity that must be addressed.”
Since Obama took office, 173 of the federal judges he’s appointed have been confirmed and “a mere 32 were African-American,” the caucus members wrote. Of 42 pending nominees, eight are black.
The statistics reflect “the dire need to address the lack of attention” to the issue, the letter states.
Nationally, 106 of the 874 federal judges are black, including those on senior status.
In Alabama, the letter said, “Sixty-four judges have served on Alabama’s district court bench since districts were first established in 1824. Of this number, only three have been African-American.”
There are district court vacancies in Montgomery and Huntsville as well as a vacancy on the 11th Circuit Court of Appeals in Atlanta. Caucus members said Obama should nominate black candidates to fill the district court vacancies, which would make the federal bench in Alabama 21.4 percent black.
The letter’s focus on Alabama was especially noteworthy for Rep. Terri Sewell, D-Birmingham, a member of the Congressional Black Caucus.
“Our record of black judicial appointments in Alabama is particularly appalling, given that African-Americans make up 26 percent of the population,” Sewell said Wednesday.
The state’s only black federal judge, Abdul Kallon of Birmingham, is considered a likely candidate for Obama to nominate to the 11th Circuit Court of Appeals, which would create a third district court vacancy.
Obama nominated Kallon to his current seat in 2009. He was the first black judge confirmed in Alabama since President Jimmy Carter’s term.
The possibility of four simultaneous lifetime appointments in the state is politically complicated because the U.S. Senate still must confirm Obama’s nominees. The Congressional Black Caucus letter warned Obama to avoid negotiating a compromise package of nominees with Sens. Richard Shelby and Jeff Sessions, both Republicans.
A similar deal involving vacancies in Georgia has been criticized by black Democrats for not being sufficiently diverse.
Sewell said earlier this month she would support Kallon’s nomination to the 11th Circuit. On Wednesday, she said she hopes Obama will work with Shelby and Sessions to nominate African-Americans to replace Judges Lynwood Smith and Myron Thompson, who went on senior status, or semi-retirement, in August.
“This appeal is not about race but fairness,” Sewell said. “I believe this is a unique opportunity to correct the history of judicial appointments in Alabama. It is simply a matter of equity.”
Sewell and the Alabama Democratic Party both have sent the White House recommendations of possible nominees for the vacancies, including several black candidates.
On Monday, two black political leaders in Alabama joined Sewell in a meeting with the White House counsel’s office to discuss the nominations. Joe Reed of Montgomery and state Sen. Hank Sanders of Selma also visited the offices of Shelby and Sessions, Sewell said.
Last fall, the White House reported that 16 percent of its confirmed judicial nominees were black, compared with 7 percent under former President George W. Bush. Earlier this month, U.S. Circuit Judge Robert Wilkins, who is African-American, was confirmed for the District of Columbia Circuit Court of Appeals.
Contact Mary Orndorff Troyan at firstname.lastname@example.org