Obama judicial pick faces questions on abortion, gay marriage, Confederate flag

Updated 5:08 p.m.

Democratic senators opposed to one of President Obama's nominees to serve on a federal court in Georgia sharply questioned the pick Tuesday about his previous statements, votes and court decisions related to abortion rights, gay rights and civil rights.

Michael Boggs is a Georgia state judge tapped by Obama in December to serve on a U.S. district court in Georgia. The White House has stood by Boggs despite strong opposition from a handful of Democratic senators, members of the Congressional Black Caucus, civil rights leaders, NARAL Pro-Choice America and gay rights groups, who accuse Boggs of having a spotty record as a Georgia state senator and judge.

Boggs has served as a state appeals court judge since 2012 and previously was a state superior court judge. But as a state senator from 2000 to 2004, Boggs, a conservative Democrat, supported keeping the Confederate emblem on the Georgia state flag; supported establishing a "Choose Life" license plate that helped fund anti-abortion groups; opposed same-sex marriage; and supported a measure that would require parents to accompany their daughters to abortion clinics if the daughter is younger than 18.

Boggs and six other picks to serve on federal courts in Georgia testified at a confirmation hearing held by the Senate Judiciary Committee Tuesday morning. They were introduced by Sens. Saxby Chambliss (R-Ga.) and Johnny Isakson (R-Ga.), who worked with the White House to pick the nominees. Isakson credited Obama and his White House counsel, Kathryn Ruemmler, for overseeing a fair selection and nomination process.

Under questioning by Sen. Richard Blumenthal (D-Conn.), Boggs was asked several detailed questions about previous public statements, votes and legal opinions on abortion rights. Boggs said he'd had only one case regarding abortion rights while serving as a state judge and added that "would be inappropriate" for his personal opinions to ever be a factor in his court rulings.

"I think that the best evidence of the judge I will be is the record of the type of judge I have been," Boggs said later.

When Sen. Charles E. Grassley (R-Iowa) later noted that Boggs had faced criticism from gay rights groups for his support for "traditional marriage," Boggs said, "My position may or may not have changed on that over the last decade" as it has for many Americans. But Boggs did not elaborate nor was he asked to clarify that comment by Grassley or other senators.

Sen. Richard J. Durbin (D-Ill.) later pressed Boggs to explain his support for a new state flag that would preserve elements of the Confederate flag. Boggs said that while he was personally "offended" by the flag, he knew that the "overwhelming majority" of his constituents wanted to hold a referendum on whether to change the flag's design.

"One of the most challenging things of being a legislator was deciding when to vote the will of my constituents and when to vote the will of myself," Boggs told Durbin, adding later: "I struggled with it regularly."

Ultimately, Boggs said, "I’m glad the flag was changed."

Several Democratic senators also pressed Boggs on his support as a Georgia lawmaker for a proposal that would have disclosed the number of abortions performed by doctors. Critics of the proposal said such a list would have endangered the lives of abortion providers.

"In light of what I subsequently learned, I don't think it would be appropriate to" support the proposal, Boggs said. He repeated a similar answer later under questioning by Sen. Dianne Feinstein (D-Calif.).

NARAL Pro-Choice America said after the hearing that Boggs “stands against the majority of Americans who want the freedom to make their own choices about when they start a family. It was clear during the hearing that Boggs’ record is deeply concerning and his testimony did nothing to allay those concerns.”

Civil rights leaders, including Joseph Lowery, the Methodist minister invited by Obama to give the benediction at his first inauguration, and Rep. John Lewis (D-Ga.)  have reiterated their opposition to some of the nominees for Georgia’s federal courts, saying that they don’t properly represent the state’s diversity.

But Obama’s judicial picks have been more diverse than those of previous administrations, with 18 percent of Obama’s choices being African American, compared to less than 10 percent for George W. Bush and 16 percent under Bill Clinton, according to White House statistics.

Opposition to Boggs is mounting as another of Obama’s judicial picks, David J. Barron, faces resistance from Democratic and Republican senators because of his involvement in drafting memos on the legality of killing American citizens in drone strikes when he worked in the Office of Legal Counsel at the Justice Department.

Senate Majority Leader Harry M. Reid (D-Nev.) said Tuesday that he hopes to schedule a vote soon to confirm Barron and that he will support him. But Reid said he would withhold judgment on Boggs.

Other Democratic senators said Tuesday that they also will withhold judgement on Boggs. But Grassley predicted that Boggs will survive the confirmation process despite Democratic opposition.

“This is something the White House really wants,” Grassley said.

Tuesday’s confirmation hearing came amid a flurry of confirmation votes on several of Obama’s judicial picks in recent weeks amid legislative gridlock on other issues. With Democratic and Republican senators unable to proceed on several different measures, Democratic leaders have devoted several days of floor time in recent weeks to confirming several nominees to federal district and appeals courts.

Ed O’Keefe is a congressional reporter with The Washington Post and covered the 2008 and 2012 presidential and congressional elections.
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