Mr. President, we’re facing an unprecedented attack on our courts. This week, once again, Senator McConnell has scheduled confirmation votes on a slate of extremist judicial court nominees-nominees who have demonstrated that they are not committed to the principle of equal justice under law.
In this administration, Senate Republicans have been working at breakneck speed to jam our courts with pro-corporate, narrow-minded elitists who will tilt the scales of justice in favor of the rich and powerful and against everyone else. And they are willing to bend and break and change every rule in the book to do it.
Their latest strategy is to ignore the blue slip. For over a century, home state Senators have played a critical role in the judicial confirmation process by using something called a “blue slip” to determine whether a judicial nomination should move forward. The Senate Judiciary Committee has historically refused to move forward on a nomination without a blue slip from both home state Senators. In fact, during the Obama Administration, Senate Republicans insisted on maintaining that rule-refusing to move forward on any judicial nominee who did not secure blue slips from both home state Senators. They even stretched the rule beyond all reasonable bounds to stop fair-minded, mainstream nominees from being confirmed.
But now that Donald Trump is in the White House, Republicans have changed their tune. In order to force extremist nominees onto our courts, they are willing to toss the blue slip rule right out the window.
Michael Brennan, President Trump’s nominee to serve on the Seventh Circuit Court of Appeals, is just the latest example. Even though Mr. Brennan did not receive a blue slip from both home state Senators, Senate Republicans moved forward on his nomination. Perhaps the ultimate irony is that when President Obama nominated another candidate to fill this very same seat, Mr. Brennan penned a strong defense of Senator Johnson’s decision to withhold his blue slip. Now that the shoe is on the other foot, those principles have now magically disappeared.
And, let’s be clear here, there are plenty of reasons for any Senator to be concerned about Mr. Brennan’s fitness to serve on the federal bench. I’ll just mention a few:
*Mr. Brennan has mocked millions of hardworking women who have faced sexism and obstacles to advancement, he has dismissed the idea of “glass-ceiling.”
*Mr. Brennan has defended a Wisconsin law that added unnecessary barriers to women seeking access to abortion-even in the case of rape or incest.
*Mr. Brennan supports criminal sentencing policies that slap low-level offenders with long jail sentences and exacerbate the problem of mass incarceration in America.
And it gets worse. Mr. Brennan believes that it’s a-okay for judges to refuse to follow binding court precedent when the judge just thinks it’s incorrect. Now that is extreme.
But Senate Republicans have shown that they just don’t care. They are willing to do whatever it takes to hand our courts over to moneyed interests.
And there are many other radical nominees who are also in line. I want to take some time to talk about one of them, but I think it’s important to explain just what’s at stake here.
In 2015, I was honored to join thousands of marchers to commemorate the anniversary of “Bloody Sunday.” On that chilly March morning 53 years ago, hundreds of non-violent voting rights advocates, including many poor and rural African-Americans who had been systematically shut out of the political process, joined together to march 54 miles from Selma to Montgomery to demand equal access to their constitutional right to vote.
As they crossed the Edmund Pettus Bridge, the marchers, including my friend Congressman John Lewis, came face-to-face with a wall of state troopers armed with billy clubs. The troopers had one message for the marchers: turn back, don’t fight this fight, it’s not worth it. Fully aware that they were putting their lives on the line, the protesters decided it was worth it. They held their ground.
As the protesters fell to their knees to pray, they were brutally attacked by those state troopers. As television footage and pictures of the brutality of that day ricocheted across America, the country was forced to grapple with an ugly truth: in a country that is supposed to be a beacon of democracy, many citizens had systematically been stripped of the fundamental right to vote. The march set in motion the signing of the Voting Rights Act of 1965, a landmark law that banned racially discriminatory voting practices.
Now I wish I could say that the fight for voting rights ended that day, the day that President Johnson signed that law. But it didn’t. Even today, powerful forces combine to strip Americans of their lawful right to vote. States have passed restrictive voter ID laws, purging voting rolls, limited opportunities to register, and erected other barriers to the political process, all with the same goal: to make sure that people who wouldn’t vote for them wouldn’t get a chance to vote at all.
Federal courts have been on the front lines of that battle. Citizens have sought justice by asking the courts to strike down laws that make it harder for people of color, low-income people, the elderly, the disabled, or others to vote. The judges who sit on those courts have one duty: to uphold equal justice under law.
The Senate must determine whether federal judicial nominees are prepared to meet this obligation. Thomas Farr, the nominee for the Eastern District of North Carolina, clearly fails that test. Instead of standing up for the rights of all people to vote, Mr. Farr has been the go-to lawyer for powerful interests that have worked to stop people of color and marginalized groups from exercising their right to vote.
Among the most appalling parts of Mr. Farr’s resume is his work for Jesse Helms, the former U.S. Senator and shameless bigot. Helms made his views on civil rights and equal treatment clear. He opposed renewal of the Voting Rights Act; he led the opposition to commemorating Martin Luther King Jr.’s birthday as a holiday; he called LGBTQ individuals “disgusting”, “weak”, and “morally sick wretches”; and he supported the apartheid regime in South Africa.
Senator Helms led some of the most blatantly racist political campaigns in modern history. To drive down black turnout, for example, his campaign mailed over 100,000 postcards to homes in predominantly black neighborhoods threatening those individuals could be criminally prosecuted if they voted. Helms’ most infamous campaign ad was a television spot that showed white hands crumpling up a job application, with an announcer saying that the person needed that job, but it was taken by a minority.
These ugly appeals to racism were a core part of Helms’ campaign, and Mr. Farr was right by his side, serving as Helms’ campaign lawyer. But Mr. Farr’s troubling record doesn’t end there. In recent years he has played a central role in resisting anti-discrimination efforts in North Carolina.
In 2013, the Supreme Court dismantled a key part of the 1965 Voting Rights Act in its Shelby County v. Holder ruling, making it easier for states to enact discriminatory voter laws. After Shelby County, North Carolina’s Republican-led legislature wasted no time in restricting voting rights, searching for ways to make it harder for African Americans in the state to vote.
North Carolina legislators requested data about voting practices broken down by race, identified laws that helped African Americans vote, and went about gutting each one of them. In just three legislative days, the state legislature rammed through an omnibus voter suppression bill. The bill included a voter ID provision that specifically excluded IDs that African Americans disproportionately used. It eliminated the first week of early voting. It ended same-day registration. It eliminated out-of-precinct voting. And it stopped pre-registration for 16- and 17-year olds. These were all-every one of them-practices that helped boost African American voter turnout.
The bill was challenged in court by faith groups, by civil rights groups, and by the U.S. government. Where was Thomas Farr? Where was he? Well he was on the other side-defending the discriminatory law.
The federal appeals court rejected Mr. Farr’s arguments. It concluded that the North Carolina legislature had intentionally discriminated in passing its voting laws, targeting African Americans with “surgical precision.”
That case represents just one of many times that Mr. Farr has defended powerful interests who discriminate against and harass those less powerful. I’ll mention a few more:
*When North Carolina redrew its district lines in a way that diluted the vote of African Americans, Mr. Farr defended it.
*When the car rental company Avis was sued for discriminating against African-American customers, Mr. Farr was there once again, defending discrimination.
Time after time, Mr. Farr has defended racial discrimination. He also has defended discrimination against workers, discrimination against women, and discrimination against LGBTQ individuals.
*For example, Mr. Farr defended an employer who created a toxic work environment for female employees, instructing them to wear skirts to attract clients, commenting that women belonged in the home instead of the workplace, and telling one woman that he would help her pick up her panties from the floor.
*And he defended the discriminatory North Carolina law that prevents transgender men and women from using the bathrooms that reflect their gender identity.
Anyone paying attention to judicial nominations knows that powerful interests are working to capture our courts. They’ve been having a field day in this administration-and I’ve come before this chamber on many occasions to oppose radical, pro-corporate nominees handpicked by those powerful interests. Thomas Farr is one of those radical, pro-corporate nominees. He’s one of them, but he’s set himself apart even from many of the terrible nominees that the Trump Administration has forced through the Senate because Mr. Farr has directly worked to dismantle one of the most precious and fundamental rights of our democracy: the right to vote.
In a state that is over one-fifth African American, the Eastern District of North Carolina has never had an African American federal district judge. Not a single one. But the Senate held up two thoroughly qualified African American women for this same seat-two women who would have sailed through the Senate if they could have gotten a vote. But they were held up so that a Republican president could fill the vacancy. And now President Trump has nominated someone who has spent much of his career defending discrimination against African Americans. Talk about rubbing salt in the wound.
Equal justice under law is a cornerstone of American democracy, but that promise cannot be fully realized if we allow individuals like Mr. Farr to secure lifetime positions on our courts. Someone who thinks states should be able to make it harder for Americans to vote based on the color of their skin or the likelihood that they will vote for a particular political party should be automatically disqualified from a federal judgeship.
I urge my colleagues to vote no on Mr. Farr’s nomination. The integrity of our courts is at stake.