When President Trump’s judicial nominees come before the Senate Judiciary Committee for their confirmation hearings, they had better be prepared to talk racial bias in the criminal justice system — or they are going to get an earful from Sen. Cory A. Booker.
Michael B. Brennan, nominated to a federal appeals court, found out firsthand when he would not acknowledge that racial bias was rampant.
“You’re aware that African-Americans are stopped more than whites for drug searches in this country, that there is no difference between blacks and whites for using drugs or dealing drugs, but they’re 3.7 times more likely to be arrested for it?” the senator demanded.
“You are aware of the data, I imagine, that says African-Americans are more likely to get mandatory sentences for the same crime. You are probably aware of the data that African-Americans are more likely to serve more time for similar crimes. Do you think implicit racial bias exists in the justice system as you know it?” Mr. Booker asked.
The New Jersey Democrat has been in Congress for five years but has held a seat on the committee only since this year. He said he was eager to secure the post to give him a chance to advance the causes dearest to his heart.
He told colleagues during a hearing last month that he brings a special understanding of the role that race plays in the U.S.
Mr. Booker’s parents had to fight a legal battle in order to become one of the first black families to move into Harrington Park, a neighborhood in New Jersey.
“I experienced a very different criminal justice system there,” Mr. Booker said. “When my friends got in trouble, they experienced a lot different justice system, very rarely got criminal charges versus the narrow margins for kids that are black and poor.”
He put that experience to work during his years as mayor of Newark, where he was dubbed “Supermayor” for his exploits, which included saving a woman from a burning building, personally shoveling snow from residents’ driveways, breaking up a drug deal and chasing a knife-wielding mugger down the street in front of City Hall.
Now in the Senate, he has become a major liberal voice, and the Judiciary Committee has given him and new committee colleague Kamala D. Harris, California Democrat an unparalleled platform to drive their issues ahead of potential 2020 presidential bids.
Both senators used their perches on the committee to blast Homeland Security Secretary Kirstjen Nielsen this year, just days after she was part of a heated immigration meeting at the White House where Mr. Trump used vulgar language to refer to Haiti, El Salvador and other developing countries that are on the U.S. list for special humanitarian immigration protections.
“When ignorance and bigotry is alive with power, it is a dangerous force in our country,” Mr. Booker lectured Ms. Nielsen. “Your silence and your amnesia is complicity.”
Mr. Booker has also blasted Thomas A. Farr, whom Mr. Trump has picked for a federal judgeship in North Carolina, and who as a lawyer more than 25 years ago represented the campaign of Sen. Jesse Helms. Mr. Booker called him “the most objectionable judicial nominee we’ve seen in this past year.”
Mr. Booker opposed Mr. Farr in a January vote and overall has backed just seven of the 26 Trump judicial picks to have come through the committee so far this year.
Sen. John Kennedy, a Louisiana Republican who serves on the committee with Mr. Booker, called him a “good man” with “some very valid points” about racial bias facing the legal system.
“Senators have a multitude of reasons for voting as they do. I just think Cory is a great guy, and when he talks, I listen,” Mr. Kennedy said.
Andra Gillespie, a professor at Emory University and author of “The New Black Politician: Cory Booker, Newark, and Post-Racial America,” said Mr. Booker developed his focus on racial issues as a politician because it reflected his constituency in Newark.
“He didn’t just come by this issue,” she said. “This is something that he has been doing for years.”
Mr. Booker, who has been discussed as a potential presidential candidate, could focus on race-based issues in order to get support from black voters, said Ms. Gillespie, adding that blacks would be a key bloc for winning the Democratic Party’s nomination in what is expected to be a crowded field.
“They’re not at the bottom of the agenda anymore,” Ms. Gillespie said of race-related policies. “They are at the top of the agenda.”
But Matthew L. Hale, a political science professor at Seton Hall University, said Mr. Booker’s focus on racial injustice would likely turn off more moderate constituents, depriving him of a winning issue in a general election.
“He is energetic, telegenic, articulate, comparatively young and could easily be the standard-bearer for the progressive wing of the Democratic Party. I am less convinced that he can appeal to moderate Democrats or any Republicans, and that makes his candidacy less of a sure thing,” Mr. Hale said.