Many liberals are expressing unhappiness that President Obama’s Supreme Court nominee is a white male, as the president tries to rally grass-roots support for Judge Merrick Garland in the uphill battle to gain a confirmation hearing from Senate Republicans.
Mr. Obama held a conference call Thursday on the Garland nomination with progressive groups, on whom he is counting to pressure the Senate to hold a vote on his nominee. He said the issue is about fairness and the government’s “integrity.”
“It’s something that I care deeply about, and I’m going to make sure to fight for the remainder of my term as president,” Mr. Obama told supporters. “I’m going to need your help.”
But with this nomination likely to be Mr. Obama’s last for the high court, he’s facing disappointment from his base that the nation’s first black president has failed to place a black jurist on the Court.
“There’s no question that in the [black] community, there is some disappointment, particularly because many had speculated that this nomination would have historic dimensions,” said Sherrilyn Ifill, president and director-counsel of the NAACP Legal Defense and Educational Fund. “There was much talk about the first Indian-American being nominated, an African-American woman being nominated. There’s no point in pretending there’s not some disappointment about that. There were hopes.”
The head of the Black Women’s Roundtable, Melanie L. Campbell, said her organization was disappointed the vacancy wasn’t “filled by an exceptional black woman to bring about a balance that ensures the court is more representative of all Americans.”
“We continue to believe it is time for African-American women to be represented in all sectors of government — including the Supreme Court of the United States, which in its 227-year history has not had a black woman nominated to serve on the highest court in the land,” she said.
The high court currently has one black justice, conservative Clarence Thomas. Mr. Obama’s two earlier nominees were Justices Sonia Sotomayor, the first Hispanic on the Court, and Elena Kagan.
During her confirmation hearing in 2009, Justice Sotomayor faced scrutiny over her views about the importance of a judge’s ethnic background. She said in a speech in 2001: “I would hope that a wise Latina woman, with the richness of her experiences, would more often than not reach a better conclusion than a white male who hasn’t lived that life.”
She later told senators that she had been trying to inspire students.
“I do not believe that any ethnic, racial or gender group has an advantage in sound judging,” she testified.
After appointing two women to the Supreme Court, there’s also dismay among liberals that Mr. Obama didn’t make it three for three. National Organization of Women President Terry O’Neill, while saying Judge Garland has “a record of excellence,” lamented that his record on women’s rights is “more or less a blank slate.”
“We have to be honest in recognizing that the nomination of Garland would not contribute to the racial diversity of the Supreme Court nor contribute to gender diversity on the Supreme Court,” said Kristen Clarke, president and executive director of the Lawyers’ Committee for Civil Rights Under Law. “At the same time, we have to give the president credit for considering a diverse slate of nominees.”
Among the candidates believed to be on Mr. Obama’s “short list” were federal appeals Judge Sri Srinivasan, who was born in India, U.S. District Court Judge Ketanji Brown Jackson, a black woman, and federal appeals Judge Paul Watford, who also is black.
Former Attorney General Eric H. Holder Jr., who is black, said of the diversity complaints, “I understand the concerns that people have.”
“The president had to make some strategic decisions, and I think he’s put before the Senate a person who I think is, without question, qualified and should be confirmed,” Mr. Holder said Thursday on MSNBC. “I think the focus should be on a confirmation of a very qualified judge.”
White House aides point out that Mr. Obama has appointed at least 117 minority judges in more than seven years, more than any other president. He has nominated more than 70 African-Americans to the federal judiciary, including at least 15 for seats on appellate courts. Republican George W. Bush nominated 24 black judges in eight years, Ms. Clarke said.
“The president’s record, when it comes to appointing African-Americans to our nation’s federal district and circuit court judges, has been outstanding,” she said. “I understand the frustration, but think that we have to view this nomination through a broader lens.”
While minorities are disappointed that Mr. Obama picked a white male, Ms. Ifill said they are equally angry about Senate Republicans’ strategy of refusing to hold a hearing on the nominee, calling it “deeply disturbing.”
“The communities that are disappointed that perhaps an African-American was not selected are the same communities that are outraged that the ongoing effort to disrespect this African-American president continues by the decision, sight unseen, of leaders in the Senate to refuse to even meet with the president’s nominee,” she said. “We’re in a moment when our country has been riveted by protests, by calls for justice in cases involving unarmed African-Americans who are killed by law enforcement. We’re in the midst of a political race that has produced volatile and often deeply disturbing and vile language and rhetoric. This country really is at a crossroads.”
Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell, Kentucky Republican, reiterated his position Thursday that voters should have a say by electing a new president in November to pick a nominee.
“Republicans think the people deserve a voice in this critical decision,” Mr. McConnell said. “The president does not. So we disagree in this instance and, as a result, we logically act as a check and balance.”
Mr. Obama said he finds Mr. McConnell’s argument puzzling.
“The American people did have a say back in 2012 when they elected me president,” Mr. Obama told supporters. “They didn’t add a caveat that said we want you to be president except for your last 300 days in office when you don’t have to fulfill your duties. So the American people have already had a say, but now what we need to do is make sure the American people will remind senators that they have a job to do. Senators that are trying to obstruct the process need to be told that we expect the Supreme Court to be above partisan politics, and that the Court should be operating at full capacity to help the American people.”
Sen. Charles E. Schumer, New York Democrat, said Senate Republicans “want Donald Trump to pick the next nominee.”
“Donald Trump won’t make America great again, but he will make the Republicans the minority again,” Mr. Schumer said.
Senate Democratic Leader Harry Reid of Nevada said Mr. McConnell “cannot prevail” in his vow not to hold hearings or a vote on the nominee.
“He’s going to lose this issue,” Mr. Reid said.
Judge Garland made courtesy calls to Capitol Hill Thursday to meet with Mr. Reid and Sen. Patrick J. Leahy of Vermont, the senior Democrat on the Judiciary Committee.
Mr. McConnell has said he won’t meet with Judge Garland, although a handful of other Republican senators have agreed to meet with the nominee. Senate Judiciary Chairman Chuck Grassley, Iowa Republican, told reporters that he’ll likely meet with Judge Garland after the Senate’s two-week Easter recess.
“If I can meet with a dictator in Uganda, I can surely meet with a decent person in America,” Mr. Grassley said.
Emerging from his meeting with Judge Garland, Mr. Leahy said Republicans “owe it to the country” to meet the nominee.
“What you see is what you get with him,” Mr. Leahy said. “There’s no hidden agenda.”
Judge Garland did not speak to reporters.