Our decision to protest President Trump’s visit to the opening of the Mississippi Civil Rights Museum wasn’t simply about the insult of his presence to the legacy of civil rights, it was also about his ongoing war to recreate the barriers and protections so many gave their lives to tear down.
We began to understand the challenges that the civil rights community would face under the Trump Administration after he nominated U.S. Sen. Jeff Sessions (R-Ala.) to head the Department of Justice. Within a few weeks of becoming attorney general, Sessions would engage in a strategic undermining of civil rights laws and enforcement, including backing away from the enforcement of consent decrees as a verifiable means to reign in police brutality and reneging on its previous support in key legal battles against racially-targeted voter suppression in Texas.
Through his refusal to condemn white supremacy and his policies to dilute the voting strength and political power of the poor, the middle class and communities of color, Trump has frightened civil rights communities in ways they have not felt in a long time. It is with this same fear and dread that we look upon his current nominations to the federal courts.
To our dismay, Thomas Farr, a nominee with ties to segregation and voter suppression, eased his way through the Senate Judiciary Committee on a vote along party lines and now stands a Senate vote away from a lifetime judicial appointment to the U.S. District Court for the Eastern District of North Carolina.
Despite the Eastern District being composed of numerous counties located in what many consider North Carolina’s “Black Belt,” this federal court has never once had a black judge. President Obama twice tried to desegregate the court by nominating two African American women with stellar credentials, but they were not confirmed due in part to the state’s Republican U.S. senators, Thom Tillis and Richard Burr, both of whom backed Farr’s nomination.
In a September letter to the Senate Judiciary Committee, Rev. William Barber II, then NAACP’s North Carolina State Conference president, said: “The North Carolina NAACP takes serious exception to this nomination and to the efforts by Senators Tillis and Burr to advance the nomination of an individual who has repeatedly demonstrated open hostility to the protection of the constitutional and civil rights of African Americans, Latinos and the poor in this state.”
Rev. Barber’s letter failed to derail Farr, whose long career has continually found him on the opposite side of the civil rights community. In 1984 and 1990, Farr served as the legal counsel for the U.S. Senate campaigns of Republican Jesse Helms, a staunch segregationist. They ran notorious political campaigns that sought to suppress black political participation. The Justice Department under President George H.W. Bush filed voting-rights charges when the campaign mailed 125,000 postcards, mostly to black voters, suggesting they were ineligible to vote and threatening jail time.
Farr also played a key role in developing and defending what the North Carolina NAACP called a “monster” voter suppression law. According to the federal appellate court which blocked the law after the NAACP challenged it in court, the law had targeted “African Americans with almost surgical precision,” and was “the most restrictive voting law North Carolina has seen since the era of Jim Crow.”
We are not alone in our condemnation of Farr, whom the Congressional Black Caucus places “at the forefront of an extended fight to disenfranchise African American voters in North Carolina.”
In 1930, the NAACP opposed the U.S. Supreme Court nomination of John J. Parker, a federal appellate judge from North Carolina, and won. Parker believed black people had no role in our democratic process. NAACP leader Walter White testified against Parker at his hearing, and the organization mobilized its branches and members to urge Senators to vote against the nominee.
Many confirmation battles later, we once again look to mobilize against the approval of Farr. We realize the often-overlooked influence and important role that federal judges play in the interpretation of the laws which impact all of us, particularly our right to vote, educational opportunity and the protection of civil rights.
With more than 130 federal judgeships open, we stand on the verge of a watershed moment that could impede progressive issues for decades. Farr’s nomination represents the tip of the iceberg in what many consider our president’s attempt to remake America’s ideology in his own image. Trump’s judicial nominees, like those elsewhere in his government, are more than 90 percent white and overwhelmingly male. In fact, white males make up 81 percent of the nearly 60 nominees (14 confirmed), including at least four who were determined to be “unqualified” by the American Bar Association.
If ever there was a time to guard the federal judiciary, this is it. These nominees share dreadful records on civil rights and are simply unfit to serve. Unlike policy or legislation, these judges are lifetime appointees with the ability to influence all aspects of jurisprudence for decades to come.
Decades ago, the Senate followed the NAACP’s recommendation to reject a judicial nominee from North Carolina who was dead-set against enfranchisement of black people. Today, we ask the Senate to heed our opposition to Thomas Farr based on similar grounds. We fervently hope the Senate, once again, will be on the right side of history.
Derrick Johnson is the president and CEO of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP).