Politics & Government

Will Tim Scott oppose a judicial pick accused of disenfranchising black voters?

Civil rights advocates, conservative activists and 99 United States Senators are all watching intently to see if Sen. Tim Scott sticks with his party or breaks with the GOP on a controversial judicial nominee.

It is looking increasingly likely the South Carolinian, the only black Republican senator, will be the deciding vote in whether the Senate confirms Thomas Farr to a federal judgeship in eastern North Carolina.

Amid allegations Farr has spent his career working to suppress African-American voting rights, nearly every Republican has signaled he or she will vote for Farr except for Scott, who insists he is “still researching” the nominee.

“I keep hearing there’s more information to come forward. I’m looking forward to seeing all the information that I can before I reach a conclusion,” Scott said of Farr, who could be voted on this week. “This is how it works.”

Sen. Jeff Flake, R-Arizona, has said he’ll automatically oppose all judicial nominees until GOP leaders allow a vote on legislation to protect Special Counsel Robert Mueller from being fired by President Donald Trump.

With all 47 Democrats and two independents pledging to oppose Farr, Democrats need at least one more Republican to defect.

“We hope — we hope — one of our Republican colleagues will rise to the occasion,” said Senate Minority Leader Chuck Schumer, D-New York.

Democrats hope that colleague will be Scott.

Scott has frequently resisted pressure to take a stand on certain nominees just because he happens to be the Senate’s only black Republican and public opinion often suggests he should take a certain side.

In early 2017, civil rights groups were fighting the nomination of then-Sen. Jeff Sessions, R-Alabama, to be Trump’s attorney general. They said his record on race issues was deemed so problematic in 1986 the Senate refused to confirm him as a federal judge. After spending time with Sessions, and inviting him to Charleston to meet local leaders, Scott voted for him.

But Scott has also in the past shown a willingness to confront issues of race, even at the expense of party unity.

In August 2017, after a white nationalist rally in Charlottesville, Virginia, turned deadly, Scott said Trump’s “moral authority” had been “compromised” by the president blaming counter-protesters for the violence along with the white supremacists.

A few months later, Scott was summoned to the White House to impress upon the president the weight of history on race relations in America.

Scott has gone to the Senate floor to speak about his own experiences with racism. He has read aloud racist tweets at his expense and described experiences where he’s been stopped by police officers — while driving his car, shopping at stores, even while going about his business as an elected official on Capitol Hill.

Perhaps most significant, Scott has a record of being willing to oppose a judicial nominee with a history of concerning behavior involving race.

In July, Scott said he would not vote for Ryan Bounds, a contender for the Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals whose racially-charged academic writings from decades earlier mocked multiculturalism and cultural sensitivity.

Scott announced his opposition just before a Senate vote on Bounds, and he rallied others, such as Sen. Marco Rubio, R-Florida, to also promise to vote “no.” Senate Republican leaders were forced to cancel the vote and withdraw the nomination.

These two chapters of Scott’s history have made the senator a target of those working to take Farr down.

“I do want to say that we’re very grateful that Sen. Tim Scott did oppose the (Bounds) nomination, (but) I can’t imagine that if he opposed the Ninth Circuit nomination that he could possibly vote for this nominee,” said Del. Eleanor Holmes Norton, D-District of Columbia, a member of the Congressional Black Caucus, in a press call Tuesday. “I’m hopeful he is studying this and will make his vote consistent with his prior vote.”

“I would urge (Scott) to vote against Thomas Farr,” Sen. Kamala Harris, D-California, who serves on the Senate Judiciary Committee, told McClatchy. Harris, also a member of the Black Caucus, would not say whether she had lobbied Scott directly.

On Monday evening, Rubio — who by Tuesday morning said through a spokeswoman he saw no reason to vote against Farr — told reporters every nomination was different, and just because the two men opposed Bounds shouldn’t mean they must also oppose Farr.

“Every nomination will be about its own set of facts and circumstances,” Rubio said. “Tim is the one that brought (Bounds) to my attention, but I don’t want to put all these on him.”

Farr, now a 64-year-old attorney, was a senior aide on the 1990 reelection campaign of late Sen. Jesse Helms, R-North Carolina, against black Democrat Harvey Gantt. The campaign famously sent postcards to black residents containing incorrect information about voter qualifications, intended to create the impression that African Americans could be arrested if they cast ballots on Election Day.

In 2013, Farr was hired by North Carolina’s Republican-controlled state legislature to defend a highly controversial voter ID law that critics say was designed to disenfranchise black voters. The Fourth Circuit Court of Appeals panel struck down the law in 2016, concluding that it targeted African-Americans “with almost surgical precision.”

Farr has said he was not involved in implementing the Helms voter disenfranchisement strategy or in drafting the North Carolina voter ID law.

Tuesday afternoon, Scott refused to say whether he was leaning one way or another. He offered no timetable for when he would make up his mind.

Brian Murphy of the McClatchy Washington bureau contributed to this report.
Emma Dumain covers Congress and congressional leadership for McClatchy DC and the company’s newspapers around the country. She previously covered South Carolina politics out of McClatchy’s Washington bureau. From 2008-2015, Dumain was a congressional reporter for CQ Roll Call.
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