Sometimes all one can do is stand and marvel in slack-jawed wonder at the breathtaking brazenness, hypocrisy and double standards that Donald Trump and his allies in the modern conservative movement are willing to employ and embrace. Six months into this dark new era, it’s truly gotten to the point at which it’s hard to think of any political act under the sun that conservatives would be unwilling to engage in in order to pursue and accomplish their goal of radically overhauling the American social contract.
The ultimate manifestation of this appalling new reality is, of course, Trump’s symbiotic relationship with one of the globe’s most powerful and immoral organized crime bosses, Vladimir Putin, but there are dozens of other – if more mundane – examples.
Here in North Carolina, the steady decline in any pretense by legislative leaders of adhering to basic rules of process and open government stands out. So too does the startling willingness of self-described “Christian” conservatives to cozy up to Trump and his serial mendacity.
The assault on the courts
If one is looking for a specific realm of public policy in which this kind of behavior has been most blatantly apparent in recent years, however, it would be hard to top the ongoing conservative effort to seize control of the judiciary. As NC Policy Watch reporter Melissa Boughton has detailed on multiple occasions, the Right’s relentless effort to capture control of the courts in North Carolina has taken many shameless forms in recent months – from the aborted (at least temporarily) effort to pack the state Supreme Court, to the new law shrinking the Court of Appeals in order to deny Governor Cooper the right to appoint new judges, to the ongoing effort to gerrymander judicial districts to favor Republicans.
Of course, North Carolina conservatives didn’t invent this kind of behavior. As was discussed at some length in this space a couple of months back, capturing the courts is a longstanding national right-wing priority that appears on the verge of a major breakthrough:
“Meanwhile, in what is perhaps the most frightening and potentially far-reaching threat, the Right is now fully on task in remaking the federal judiciary. The effort commenced, of course, with several years of shamelessly blockading President Obama’s court nominees, continued with the nomination and confirmation of new Supreme Court Justice Neil Gorsuch and will soon move on in the months ahead as the Trump administration commences filling a remarkable 129 vacancies on the federal courts that Republican senators have stockpiled.”
Not surprisingly, Trump and his cronies are already leaping at the opportunity and the GOP-dominated Senate is moving quickly to approve a bevy of new hardliners – including a conservative blogger from Kentucky named John K. Bush who authored scores of offensive posts under a pseudonym before Trump saw fit to nominate him to the Sixth Circuit Court of Appeals.
Trump nominates a North Carolina arch-conservative activist
Last week, the conservative courts putsch reached North Carolina when Trump nominated a right-wing activist lawyer named Thomas Farr to fill a seat on U.S. District Court for the Eastern District – the oldest vacancy in the federal system. As readers will no doubt recall, the Eastern District seat has stood vacant for more than a decade – including the entire Obama presidency – thanks to Senator Richard Burr’s stubborn refusal to allow either of President Obama’s two nominees to receive a hearing. Senate rules allow senators to block the consideration of federal court nominees in their own states by refusing to return what is known under arcane Senate rules as a “blue slip.”
Though Burr never offered a detailed explanation for his refusal to return his blue slip for either of Obama’s nominees, many believe it was intended as payback for the Senate’s failure to consider Farr when he was nominated by George W. Bush during the latter years of his presidency.
Whatever the public and private reasoning involved in producing the current situation, there are a lot of important reasons why this is much more than a simple “tit for tat” scenario.
First and foremost among these is that Farr is no ordinary nominee. Unlike both of the individuals advanced by President Obama (federal prosecutor Jennifer May-Parker and veteran state court judge Patricia Timmons-Goodson) Thomas Farr is not an experienced public servant. Rather, he is a lifelong partisan activist who has spent four decades advancing the hard right agenda.
Farr was graduated from one of the nation’s wackiest and most extreme right-wing colleges (Hillsdale College) in 1976 and spent his early years as a lawyer working for the badly misnamed National Right to Work Legal Foundation – a corporate front group long tied to the infamous Koch brothers and other far right funders that, according to the Center for Media and Democracy “has been a national leader in the effort to destroy public and private sector unions” and “a powerful instrument of the corporate and ideological interests that want to keep wages low and silence the voice of organized labor in the political arena.”
During his several decades in private practice in North Carolina, Farr has repeatedly worked on behalf of far right causes. He long enjoyed close ties to the Jesse Helms machine and represented the Helms campaign in the aftermath of its having been found to have intimidated African-American voters in the 1990 Senate campaign. In 2009, the newly-elected right-wing school board majority in Wake County hired Farr as its in-house counsel.
More recently, Farr has been at the epicenter of GOP gerrymandering and voter suppression efforts. As Raleigh’s News & Observer reported last week:
Farr…and other lawyers at the Ogletree Deakins firm were hired by GOP leaders in charge of the General Assembly to defend in court congressional and legislative boundaries originally approved in 2011. The boundaries helped expand Republican majorities in future elections. Farr later helped defend a wide-ranging 2013 voting law that required photo identification to vote, reduced the number of early voting days and eliminated same-day registration during that period.
…the 4th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals threw out photo ID and early voting changes, alleging legislators targeted black voters “with almost surgical precision.”
Two very different situations
The circumstances surrounding Bush’s nomination of Farr and Obama’s nomination of May-Parker and Timmons-Goodson were dramatically different. Despite the failure of the original Farr nomination, President Bush had significant success in getting his court nominees approved – even when Democrats were in charge of the Senate. For the most part, only his most extreme nominees (like Farr) ran into opposition.
President Obama, in contrast, faced repeated and constant resistance and delays from Republicans throughout his presidency – often (and even admittedly!) for no good reason. Indeed, many Obama nominees ultimately sailed through unopposed in their final votes after having been delayed for months or years. This would have undoubtedly been the case for May-Parker or Timmons-Goodson had they even been given a fair shot. Republicans simply didn’t want to provide such a fair shot.
Add to all of this the hard and striking reality that:
a) Farr is yet another white male being nominated in an region that has never, in the entire history of the nation, been served by a federal judge of color (both May-Parker and Timmons-Goodson are African-American),
b) the Eastern District includes all of the counties in the state that are greater than 50% African-American in population and has the greatest percentage of African-Americans of any region in the state, and
c) Farr has dedicated big chunks of his career to abetting controversial conservative efforts with respect to voting rights of African-Americans,
and it’s not difficult to see why this new nomination strikes a unique and disconcerting chord.
Senators Burr and Tillis have, of course, already indicated that they will support Farr. As with the Supreme Court nomination so blatantly stolen from Merrick Garland, both men are only too happy to play along with the latest iteration of Trumpism and its ultra-cynical, ends-justify-the-means brand of governance. Caring and thinking North Carolinians should continue to resist and fight back with everything they’ve got.