Under the Dome

Graham meets with White House on controversial judicial picks, including Thomas Farr

FILE - In this Sept. 20, 2017, file photo, Thomas Farr is sworn in during a Senate Judiciary Committee hearing on his nomination to be a District Judge on the United States District Court for the Eastern District of North Carolina, on Capitol Hill in Washington.
FILE - In this Sept. 20, 2017, file photo, Thomas Farr is sworn in during a Senate Judiciary Committee hearing on his nomination to be a District Judge on the United States District Court for the Eastern District of North Carolina, on Capitol Hill in Washington. AP Photo

New Senate Judiciary Committee Chairman Lindsey Graham met for the first time this year with White House officials on Thursday to discuss the fate of judicial nominees that languished in the previous Congress.

That list included Thomas Farr.

A candidate for a North Carolina federal district court judgeship, Farr’s chances of being confirmed last year ended because of concerns about his involvement in efforts to suppress African American turnout in North Carolina elections.

Graham, R-South Carolina, told McClatchy on Wednesday the meeting’s purpose was to “kind of go through the list and see who to renominate, what problems there might be, that kind of stuff.”

After the meeting Thursday, Graham said no decisions had been made. But Farr’s re-nomination remains possible.

Last year, Sen. Tim Scott of South Carolina, the Senate’s only black Republican, determined Farr’s involvement in a voter suppression strategy in the 1990 reelection campaign of Sen. Jesse Helms, R-North Carolina, was disqualifying.

At that point, the Senate had 51 Republicans, meaning Farr could only afford to lose two votes if the Senate’s 47 Democrats and two independents opposed him, as expected. Then-Sen. Jeff Flake, R-Arizona, on the verge of retirement, also said he would oppose Farr.

Democrats and civil rights groups cheered Scott’s decision and what appeared to be the end of Farr’s chances to win a lifetime judicial appointment: Though his nomination was never formally withdrawn, Farr had been tainted with accusations of racist activity.

Yet Sen. Thom Tillis, R-North Carolina, said this week he was still looking into whether he would push to have Farr, who has longstanding ties with Republicans in the state, re-nominated.

All judicial nominees that were pending in the previous legislative session must be re-nominated by President Donald Trump to the new Congress that was seated last week if the judges are to be confirmed.

“We’re looking at it right now,” Tillis told McClatchy of Farr, a 64-year-old Raleigh attorney.

Carrie Severino, a chief counsel and policy director with the conservative Judicial Crisis Network, said recently that the White House had not made a decision about how forcefully it would advocate for Farr.

The White House would not comment on the status of its deliberations.

When asked about Farr, Graham replied, “I like him, I think he’s highly qualified, but I’ll have to see where the votes are at.”

Republicans now control the chamber with 53 members, meaning Farr could have an easier time being confirmed this time around. Graham said he would talk to Scott, Tillis and fellow North Carolina Republican Sen. Richard Burr before making a determination about whether to proceed with Farr. The White House would also have to be consulted.

On Thursday, Scott said he had not yet spoken to Graham or anyone at the White House about the chances of re-nominating Farr. Scott told McClatchy his response today would be the same as it was last year: He’d oppose Farr. But Scott said he wasn’t worrying about what might happen.

“My responsibility is to do my job, not do everybody else’s job. So once we lay the facts out, if people prefer to move in a direction that I think is inconsistent with the best interests of the courts in the country, then that’s on them,” he said.

Scott, who helped sink another judicial nominee with a record of racial insensitivity last year — Ryan Bounds for the 9th Circuit Court of Appeals — said during the Farr controversy that Senate Republicans should make stronger efforts to avoid stumbling into optics that make them appear tone deaf on race.

“We are not doing a very good job of avoiding the obvious potholes on race in America and we ought to be more sensitive when it comes to those issues,” Scott told reporters at the time. “There are a lot of folks that can be judges, in states including North Carolina, besides Tom Farr.”

Later, he told McClatchy he planned to discuss how the Senate Judiciary Committee, under Graham’s leadership, could ensure judicial nominees are more properly vetted before they come to the Senate for confirmation.

“One of the things that he and I have discussed as it relates to the judicial process is to make sure the homework and the investigations and the stories that may be available in the public space, whether it’s a DOJ memo or college writings, get all that up front,” Scott said.

Scott was referring to a Justice Department memo detailing Farr’s involvement in the Helms campaign that was made public days before Farr’s scheduled confirmation vote, as well as a collection of college writings from Bounds that were discovered after he was nominated.

“Don’t let someone spring stuff on you that you know is preventable from a time perspective because it’s available in the public,” Scott said. “Figure that out along the way.”

On Thursday, Scott also said he hoped a judicial nominee’s record such as Farr’s would speak for itself going forward.

“I want us to be as a nation sensitive to clear and objective facts that lead one to a conclusion that is undeniable. If we think that somehow time has made that better, then that’s on people who think that way,” Scott said. “I think you uncover the facts, find the truth, share the truth, and then people have to do what they have to do.”

Many of Farr’s advocates have defended the nominee by saying he was just a paid staffer on the Helms campaign, not an architect of a voter suppression strategy. They also note that that campaign was almost three decades ago.

The seat on the North Carolina court, which covers 44 counties from Raleigh to the coast, has been open since Jan. 1, 2006.

Farr was twice nominated by President George W. Bush to fill a vacancy in the U.S. District Court for the Eastern District of North Carolina, but he never received a vote in the judiciary committee.

President Barack Obama nominated two African-American women for the position, but neither received a vote in committee. Trump nominated Farr in 2017 and again in 2018. Each time Farr advanced out of the Senate Judiciary Committee on a party line vote.

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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.