People For the American Way

How Low Will Attacks on Biden’s First Red-State Circuit Nominee Go?

News and Analysis
How Low Will Attacks on Biden’s First Red-State Circuit Nominee Go?

Sixth Circuit nominee Andre Mathis had his confirmation hearing before the Judiciary Committee on January 12. The first Black Tennessean nominated to that court, he showed grace under pressure, never once taking the bait in response to desperate Republican attacks, even ones using racially charged language. The attacks showed the depths to which Republicans will go to keep qualified Biden nominees off the courts.

Andre Mathis is a well respected law firm partner in Memphis whose broad range of supporters includes the CEO of Federal Express, the Memphis Bar Association, the dean of the University of Memphis School of Law, the Memphis Central Labor Council, and the president of the Memphis NAACP. He has received numerous recognitions and awards throughout his career for his litigation abilities. But because the Biden administration chose to nominate him over the wishes of Tennessee’s Republican senators, Sens. Marsha Blackburn and Bill Hagerty oppose him, and the Republican smear machine has whirled into operation to defeat his nomination.

All nominees are subject to a rigorous background investigation by the FBI before being named, and the White House regularly shares the FBI report with the Judiciary Committee. A week before his hearing, Mathis sent the committee a letter elaborating on something in the report: He had gotten out-of-state speeding tickets and forgotten to pay them, which resulted in temporary suspensions of his driver’s license. In each case, when he was made aware of the problem, he paid up the tickets and had his license restored.

In order to advance the Republican agenda, somehow this information made its way to Fox News the day before the hearing, which breathlessly touted its “exclusive” and helped lay the groundwork for the smear campaign that would begin in earnest the next day.

During the hearing, Sen. Blackburn (a member of the Judiciary Committee) claimed that it was now public knowledge that Mathis has a “rap sheet with a laundry list of citations.”

A “rap sheet.”

As committee chair Dick Durbin noted later in the hearing, “if speeding tickets are a rap sheet, then I’ve got one, too.” He added that he’d never gotten a speeding ticket for driving five miles per hour over the limit, which was one of Mathis’s traffic citations.

Characterizing a Black man’s speeding tickets as a “rap sheet” may have been the most egregiously racially charged language of the hearing, but it was impossible to ignore the racial overtones in other attacks.

For instance, Blackburn said that one of the reasons she opposed Mathis was that he simply wasn’t qualified. As evidence, she noted that “he has never served as a judge.” (News flash: Many circuit court nominees have extensive legal experience that does not include having been a judge.) Since Mathis has litigated hundreds of civil cases and defended approximately 150 criminal cases in Tennessee, including in state appeals courts, Blackburn decided that what matters is that he hasn’t argued before federal appeals courts. Blackburn even intimated that Mathis isn’t competent enough for the job.

But if Andre Mathis were just some not-very-bright guy with a rap sheet, then why did the American Bar Association’s comprehensive and confidential interviews of members of the Tennessee legal community result in their giving him the highest possible rating of “well qualified?” And why did the CEO of Federal Express—an enormous corporate presence in Tennessee—write directly to Blackburn and Hagerty and urge them to support the nomination?

Then there’s Blackburn’s baseless claim that the White House didn’t consult with the Tennessee senators on this nomination. In fact, at the instigation of the White House, Mathis met with counsels from both senators’ office on June 17, five months before the nomination was made. During the hearing, Sen. Durbin disclosed that the White House had heard nothing negative about Mathis from the senators’ offices, and that they had even interviewed an alternative candidate recommended by Blackburn and Hagerty. The idea that the Tennessee senators were somehow shut out of the process is ludicrous.

Remember, the Republicans complaining about the (supposed) lack of consultation from the Biden White House were all too eager to vote for Trump circuit court nominees who had been nominated without the approval of or consultation with Democratic home state senators.

No, what’s going on here is that Republicans have long had an agenda to take over the federal courts, and they have been willing to do whatever it takes to do it. This has been going on for years.

Why? Because the judges they put on the courts uphold their schemes to deny Black people and other people of color the right to vote. Because their judges are all too eager to stymie the Biden administration at every turn, regardless of what the law actually says. Because their judges uphold blatantly unconstitutional attacks on the right to abortion care. Because their judges are redefining religious liberty not as a shield to defend religious exercise but as a sword to deny rights to other people.

For Biden’s first circuit court nominee from a non-blue state, he consulted with the Tennessee senators. He interviewed their recommended candidate. He arranged for their staff to meet his leading candidate, a law firm partner respected for his skillful representation of corporate clients. He gave them months to object to him. They didn’t. Biden tried to nominate someone they would approve of, and Republicans responded in true form. They are so committed to opposing any Democratic efforts to put fair judges on the bench that they resorted to racially charged attacks and fact-free claims to justify their opposition.

Senate Republicans have a rap sheet on judges that brings shame to the party of Lincoln.