By Todd A. Cox, LDF Policy Director
In honor of Martin Luther King Jr. Day, many Senate Republicans released statements or tweets commemorating Dr. King’s legacy of social justice. In a statement, Senator Lindsey Graham said, “We honor Dr. King because he gave his life to a worthy cause which was to make America a more socially just place.” And in a Twitter thread, Senator Ted Cruz noted that America has made strides towards racial equality, and tweeted that to honor Dr. King’s memory, we must “…never forget our responsibility to pursue truth and justice as he did, and secure the blessings of liberty for every American.” However, their open reverence for Dr. King divorced from any action that could fulfill his promise provides little comfort.
This morning, members of the Senate Judiciary Committee, such as Senators Graham and Cruz, will consider several troubling judicial and executive nominees. These senators have the power to advance Dr. King’s charge to secure voting rights, address poverty, and end housing segregation. But to do so, they must begin to match their rhetoric with their votes.
By nominating individuals who are outright hostile to civil rights and the rule of law, President Donald Trump reinforces his contempt for protecting the rights of all citizens. From his executive order banning citizens from majority-Muslim nations to the creation of his now disbanded sham voter fraud commission to the Justice Department’s decision to probe Harvard University’s affirmative action policies, the president’s nominees are a key force in advancing a blatantly anti-civil rights agenda.
Take district court judge nominee Thomas Farr. Farr, a product of Jesse Helms’ racist political machine, has spent decades thwarting efforts to address inequality in North Carolina. For example, Helms’ 1990 campaign sent 125,000 postcards to mostly African-American voters insinuating that their casting a vote could result in criminal prosecution. The Justice Department complaint against the Helms campaign refers to an attorney, who one former Justice Department attorney identified as Farr, who enabled the voter intimidation campaign.
More recently, Farr helped create and defend North Carolina’s strict voter ID requirement, which the Fourth Circuit Court of Appeals ruled intentionally discriminated against Black voters, noting that the law targeted African Americans with “almost surgical precision.” Voting “no” on a nominee with such a disqualifying record should be simple. In no way does he live up to the ideals of equal justice for which Dr. King so famously advocated, and that so many Senators recently extolled.
But Farr isn’t the only nominee who should be disqualified on these bases. Another district court nominee, Mark Norris, is cut from the same cloth and should be voted down with equal fervor.
In Tennessee, where he would sit as a federal judge, Norris sponsored a resolution to prohibit local communities from removing Confederate monuments from public places. He also supported an amendment to the state’s already strict voter ID law that would have allowed election officials to require proof of citizenship — such as a driver’s license, passport or birth certificate — to vote. In addition, Norris has supported legislation that has perpetuated school segregation. The separation of Memphis city schools, which is 85 percent African American, from the broader, majority-white county school district has been described as “one of the nation’s most egregious examples of public education splintering into a system of haves and have-nots over race and class.”
A recent Alliance for Justice report describes Norris’ civil rights record as “…a virtual catalogue of biases and hostile acts aimed at numerous communities, including immigrants, LGBTQ persons, workers, women, people of color, and others who rely on the courts to uphold their rights.” Such a nominee has no place on the federal bench.
And David Stras, who is a nominee for the Eighth Circuit Court of Appeals, also shares a lengthy record of partisanship and an aversion to equal justice. As a Minnesota Supreme Court justice, Stras voted in favor of the Republican legislature in a case that allowed an ambiguously worded amendment to the state’s Constitution — which would have required a photo ID to vote — to be placed on the ballot.
Unfortunately, the president’s desire to choose such nominees isn’t a naïve choice, it’s a calculated one. President Trump’s judicial nominees indicate an intentional degradation of government institutions and norms, and to solidify his anti-equality agenda, President Trump’s broad plan also extends to executive nominations.
The U.S. Department of Justice Civil Rights Division is charged with protecting “the civil and constitutional rights of all Americans, particularly some of the most vulnerable members of our society.” Trump’s nomination of Eric Dreiband to lead the division flies in the face of this charge. In his legal career, Dreiband has advocated for weaker employment discrimination laws, which traditionally protect women, older Americans, and Black and Latino workers. In addition to his lack of experience in voting rights, fair housing, and policing reform — areas that would be central to his work at the division — Dreiband falls directly in line with the president’s desire to undermine civil rights and the rule of law.
There’s a clear pattern that has emerged among Trump’s judicial and executive nominees. Each senator must stand up for equal justice, not just through lip service, but with their actions. Each senator can, and must, honor the legacy of Dr. King by voting against these nominees.