By Leslie Proll, Former Policy Director, NAACP Legal Defense and Educational Fund, Inc. (LDF)
Jesse Helms’ ghost looms large in President Trump’s nomination of Thomas Farr to the Eastern District of North Carolina. Helms, a staunch segregationist who served as North Carolina’s Senator for three decades until retiring in 2003, was notorious for his unabashed racism in political campaigns and lawmaking. He also used his influence to ensure that North Carolina’s representation on its federal courts was white and overtly hostile to civil rights. Most famously, he blocked desegregation of the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Fourth Circuit, forcing President Clinton to make a recess appointment to integrate the last all-white circuit court.
Helms’ shameful legacy has surfaced with the nomination of Thomas Farr, both in the segregation of this court — it has never had an African-American judge — and in Farr’s disqualifying record. Farr has fought to undermine civil rights for his entire career and has deep connections to the “Helms machine,” a massive political and fundraising enterprise rooted in fomenting racial superiority and designed to vigorously oppose civil rights.
Farr is not just another conservative lawyer. His nomination is the product of a white supremacist political machine, and is an insult to African Americans in the Eastern District and around the country who depend on the federal courts to uphold civil rights. Last month, Congress unanimously passed a resolution condemning white supremacy that President Trump signed into law. Confirming Thomas Farr would render that resolution meaningless. The Senate must back up their words with action and reject Farr’s nomination.
Confirming Farr, a 63-year-old white male, would perpetuate the segregation of this court. Almost 30 percent of the Eastern District’s residents are African American, and the district is home to approximately half of the State’s African Americans. Yet the court has never had a Black judge in its 143-year history.
This is not for lack of trying. President Obama nominated two African-American women to this seat, but, employing the same obstruction long-used by Helms, North Carolina Senator Richard Burr unilaterally blocked both candidates. Both women were superbly qualified: Jennifer May-Parker was a federal prosecutor and Patricia Timmons-Goodson was a former justice on North Carolina’s Supreme Court. Senator Burr never challenged their qualifications; in fact, he originally recommended Parker’s nomination.
When Trump came into office, he should have recognized, as presidents of both parties have before, that judicial diversity is not partisan. But of 60 judicial nominees thus far, only five are persons of color. Trump has also reversed efforts to diversify the bench. So far, he has replaced ten Obama nominees of color with a white nominee, including Farr. Farr was previously nominated to the seat in 2006 by President George W. Bush, but was never confirmed because of his history fighting voting rights, workers’ rights, and economic equality. This record includes longstanding ties to ardent proponents of white supremacy and connections to some of the ugliest events in North Carolina’s racial history, which are absolutely disqualifying for a federal judicial nominee.
Farr began his legal career just as Jesse Helms was consolidating political power by using race and union rights as clarion calls. Farr’s first job was with the National Right to Work Foundation, an organization dear to Jesse Helms because of its virulent anti-union activity. Its president once said, “No member of Congress — nobody in the whole United States — has done as much to help [us] advance the Right to Work cause as Jesse Helms.” Farr then worked for North Carolina’s new Senator, John East, whom Helms handpicked to run in 1980 and backed with his powerful political machine. East teamed up with Helms to filibuster extending the Voting Rights Act and oppose establishing the Martin Luther King, Jr. holiday. Farr then became the first law clerk to a new Helms-picked federal judge in North Carolina, Frank Bullock.
Farr cemented his relationship with the Helms machine in 1983 by joining the Raleigh firm of Maupin, Taylor & Ellis, where Helms’ chief strategist and lawyer, Thomas Ellis, was a named partner. The Washington Post called Ellisthe “backroom architect of Helms’ rise to political power.” Helms biographer Ernest Ferguson says that Ellis’ “crowning achievement was the creation of Senator Jesse Helms.” Ellis and Helms met during a 1950 North Carolina Senate campaign that relied on stoking white fear about integration and they joined forces to create a powerful political machine that supported extremist candidates and causes for decades.
Farr joined Ellis’s firm just three months after Ellis’ own nomination to the International Broadcasters Board, secured by Helms, was defeated over his racist views. During his hearing before the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, Ellis admitted to sending a letter to the North Carolina Advisory Commission on Education after Brown v. Board of Education that stated: “The eventual goal of this [integration] movement is racial intermarriage and disappearance of the Negro race by fusing into the white.” He acknowledged that, as President Reagan’s North Carolina campaign manager in the 1976 primary, he had circulated racist fliers that accused Gerald Ford of considering a Black running mate.
But most shocking was Ellis’ admission that he served as one of two directors of the Pioneer Fund from 1973 to 1977. Identified by the Southern Poverty Law Center as a hate group, the Pioneer Fund was founded in 1937 to study “racial betterment.” It funded research into theories that African Americans were genetically inferior, including research by William Shockley who believed “the major cause of the American Negro’s intellectual and social deficit is hereditary and racially genetic in origin.” Asked at his hearing if the concept of racial inferiority intellectually offended him, Ellis first replied, “I don’t know how to answer that exactly.” He admitted to resigning from the Pioneer Fund only after his connection threatened to embarrass Jesse Helms. After listening to Ellis’ testimony, then-Senator Joseph Biden told him: “If you continue to subscribe to [your past statements] you are, by my definition, a racist.” A majority of the Committee immediately asked President Reagan to withdraw the nomination.
It was at this time that Ellis became Farr’s mentor, and together they worked for Helms and his campaigns and organizations. They appeared together in litigation defending voting rights violations against African Americans. In Farr’s only oral argument before the Supreme Court, in which he challenged two predominantly African-American congressional districts, Ellis was on the brief. Farr worked with Ellis in a close professional relationship for 34 of the 38 years he has practiced law, even following Ellis to another firm.
Farr served as counsel to Helms’ Senate campaigns that relied on overtly racist appeals. The 1984 campaign was so racist that judges in a North Carolina redistricting case cited it as an example of how racism continued to flourish in North Carolina politics. The 1990 campaign ran an ad showing white hands crumpling a rejection letter with the announcer stating: “You needed that job, and you were the best qualified. But they had to give it to a minority because of a racial quota.”
In 1992, the Justice Department filed a complaint against the Helms’ campaign for intimidating Black voters in violation of the Voting Rights Act. The campaign sent 125,000 postcards to North Carolina voters, most of whom were African American, suggesting they were ineligible to vote and warning that voting could result in criminal prosecution. Farr defended the campaign against the Justice Department and claims he learned of the mailing only “after the fact.” But the complaint refers to “an attorney,” reportedly Farr, who was engaged in the campaign’s “ballot security” measures.
There is a straight line from Thomas Farr’s early career and his Helms-Ellis connections to his later work. Farr has become North Carolina’s defender-in-chief of voter suppression. This includes congressional and state legislative redistricting plans challenged under the Voting Rights Act and the State’s failure to comply with the National Voter Registration Act.
Most recently, Farr helped to create and then defend North Carolina’s 2013 voter suppression legislation that included a strict voter ID requirement. The Fourth Circuit held that North Carolina’s legislators purposefully discriminated against Black voters and “targeted African Americans with almost surgical precision.” For those familiar with Farr’s history, it is not surprising that the Fourth Circuit called it “the most restrictive voting law North Carolina has seen since the era of Jim Crow.”
Not only did Farr collaborate, professionally and ideologically, with people who used political power to promote white supremacy and block advances in civil rights, he honored them. In Senate paperwork, Farr describes speaking in 2007 “in honor of Tom Ellis,” when Ellis received the Freedom Leadership Award from Hillsdale College. Hillsdale is a deeply conservative college in Michigan which decided to forgo federal funding to avoid compliance with civil rights laws. It appears to have no connection to Ellis other than counting Thomas Farr as an alum.
Thomas Farr played a prominent role in a crusade that fought to keep white supremacy alive and to deny African Americans full participation in our democracy, and he has continued those causes in their present-day form. No one with this record can even pretend to possess the impartiality and commitment to equal justice that residents of the Eastern District, including a substantial African-American population, deserve from a federal judge. If the Senate truly condemned white supremacy, it must reject Thomas Farr’s nomination, and send a strong message that white supremacy has no place on the federal bench.