WASHINGTON — Senate Republicans are working to soon fill the nation's longest judicial vacancy with a North Carolina lawyer whose nomination has raised objections from black lawmakers and civil rights groups concerned about his work defending state laws found to have discriminated against African-Americans.
Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell, R-Ky., has helped push 84 of President Donald Trump's nominees over the finish line and is itching for more. With just a few more weeks to go before Congress adjourns for the year, he has teed up a vote on the nomination of Thomas Farr, 64, to serve as a district court judge in North Carolina.
The Senate Judiciary Committee advanced Farr's confirmation with a party-line vote back in January, meaning McConnell has waited about 10 months and until after the midterm elections to hold a vote on the floor.
Senators tend to save their biggest fights in the judicial arena for Supreme Court and appeals court nominees, but Farr's nomination has proved an exception.
"It's hard to believe President Trump nominated him, and it's even harder to believe the Senate Republicans are considering it again," said Senate Democratic leader Chuck Schumer of New York in one of about 20 tweets he has sent out in recent days concerning Farr.
Farr has the backing of home-state Sens. Richard Burr and Thom Tillis, both Republicans. They have noted that Farr was also nominated to the same position by President George W. Bush and has a "well qualified" rating from the American Bar Association. They have protested the implication that Farr is racially insensitive or biased.
"I think absolutely destroying a good man's reputation is inappropriate," Tillis said before the committee advanced Farr's nomination.
In introducing Farr last year, Burr said the judiciary needs good people and he "fills every piece of the word good."
But Sen. Sheldon Whitehouse, D-R.I., described Farr as "probably the worst of the litter" when it comes to Trump's judicial nominees.
At the same committee hearing, Sen. Dick Durbin, D-Ill., said: "Could this administration have picked an individual who is more hostile to the rights of minorities than this man? It is hard to imagine."
GOP leaders in charge of the North Carolina Legislature hired Farr and others at his firm to defend congressional and legislative boundaries that the Legislature approved in 2011. A federal court eventually struck some boundaries down as racial gerrymanders and the Supreme Court affirmed that decision.
Farr also helped defend a 2013 law that required photo identification to vote, reduced the number of early voting days and eliminated same-day registration during that period.
North Carolina Republicans said that requiring voter ID would increase the integrity of elections. But the 4th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals ruled that the state provided no evidence of the kind of in-person voter fraud the ID mandate would address. The Richmond, Virginia-based court said the law targeted black voters "with almost surgical precision."
Farr told lawmakers that, as an advocate, he vehemently disagreed with the argument that the North Carolina Legislature sought to curtail the voting rights of people of color or any other voter. But, said, "I am obligated to follow the decision by the 4th Circuit and pledge that I will do so."
The history of the particular judicial opening Farr would fill has also contributed to the acrimony.
President Barack Obama nominated two African-American women to serve on the court, but neither was granted a hearing and their nominations stalled. If confirmed, they would have been the first blacks to serve in that particular district, which is about 27 percent black.
Farr also served as a lawyer for the re-election campaign of Republican Sen. Jesse Helms in 1990. The Justice Department alleged that about 120,000 postcards sent overwhelmingly to black voters before that election was intended to intimidate them from voting.
Farr said he was not consulted about the postcards and did not have any role in drafting or sending them. He said that after he had been asked to review the card, "I was appalled to read the incorrect language printed on the card and to then discover it had been sent to African Americans."
The explanation has failed to win over the NAACP.
"The courts are supposed to be where we can find and seek justice. But Farr's lifetime crusade is to disenfranchise African-Americans and deprive them of their rights," said Hilary Shelton, director of the NAACP's Washington bureau. "He belongs nowhere near a bench of justice."
Democratic lawmakers called on the chairman of the Senate Judiciary Committee, Sen. Charles Grassley, R-Iowa, to schedule Farr for another round of testimony about his role in the Helms' campaign, but Grassley declined.
With a 51-49 majority, Republicans will have little margin for error in confirming Farr.
Sen. Jeff Flake, R-Ariz., has already pledged to oppose all judicial nominees until he gets a vote on legislation to protect special counsel Robert Mueller.