Sen. Tim Scott (R-S.C.) announced Thursday that he would oppose the confirmation of Thomas A. Farr, President Trump’s nominee for a U.S. district court seat, ending a bitter confirmation fight centered on questions about how much Farr knew about a decades-old effort to disenfranchise black voters in North Carolina.
The decision from Scott, the Senate’s sole black Republican, came after the publication of a Justice Department memo in The Washington Post that Scott said raised concerns about Farr’s involvement in a controversial “ballot security” campaign. Farr was a lawyer for the campaign of Sen. Jesse Helms (R-N.C.) in 1984 and in 1990, when it mailed postcards that the department later said were sent to intimidate black voters from going to the polls.
“I am ready and willing to support strong candidates for our judicial vacancies that do not have lingering concerns about issues that could affect their decision-making process as a federal judge, and I am proud that Senate Republicans have confirmed judges at an historical rate over the past two years,” Scott said in a statement Thursday afternoon.
He continued: “This week, a Department of Justice memo written under President George H.W. Bush was released that shed new light on Mr. Farr’s activities. This, in turn, created more concerns. Weighing these important factors, this afternoon I concluded that I could not support Mr. Farr’s nomination.”
Farr has consistently denied he knew about the postcards in advance and has told senators he was “appalled” when he found out about them. But all 49 Senate Democrats opposed his nomination — as did Sen. Jeff Flake (R-Ariz.), who is blocking all judicial nominees over an unrelated issue but told The Post earlier Thursday that he would have opposed Farr anyway.
“Senator Tim Scott has done a courageous thing, and he’s done the right thing,” Senate Minority Leader Charles E. Schumer (D-N.Y.) said Thursday afternoon. “Thomas Farr has been involved in the sordid practice of voter suppression for decades and never should have been nominated, let alone confirmed to the bench. Thankfully, he won’t be.”
Setbacks on judicial nominees are rare for Trump, who has won Senate confirmation for 84 judges, including two Supreme Court nominees.
Though Scott and Flake were the only Republicans on record opposing Farr, other GOP senators began signaling Thursday that they were reconsidering their support because of the information disclosed in the 1991 memo. Farr’s nomination advanced on a 51-to-50 procedural vote Wednesday, after Vice President Pence cast the tie-breaking vote.
Scott, as well as Sens. Lisa Murkowski (R-Alaska), Susan Collins (R-Maine) and Marco Rubio (R-Fla.), held a conference call with the author of the memo, Lee Rubin, to ask further questions about Farr’s involvement in the tactics of the Helms campaign and the North Carolina Republican Party.
“The Department of Justice memo first revealed by The Washington Post raised a number of new questions about Mr. Farr’s nomination,” Collins said in a statement late Thursday. “I’ve joined in a conversation with the memo’s author, and further research and evaluation are now required.”
After the call, Rubio said he had yet to change his mind on Farr. But Murkowski was more circumspect, acknowledging that the memo is “new information, and so I’m taking a look at that.”
The document obtained by The Post outlined the basis for a Justice Department complaint against the Helms campaign and the North Carolina Republican Party for the more than 120,000 postcards sent primarily to black voters that officials said were an attempt to dissuade them from voting.
The 54-page memo described an October 1990 meeting where “ballot security” initiatives were discussed. At that meeting, Farr told others that there were a limited number of ballot security initiatives that the groups could undertake at that point in the race.
During the meeting, participants also reviewed the Helms campaign’s 1984 ballot security effort — which Farr had coordinated — “with an eye toward the activities that should be undertaken in 1990.”
Earlier, Senate Republican leaders postponed a vote on Farr, lacking sufficient senators to confirm him because Sen. James M. Inhofe (R-Okla.) was absent from the Senate to deal with a family situation back home.
Trump nominated Farr to a seat on the U.S. District Court for the Eastern District of North Carolina that has been vacant longer than any other current opening across the country. President Barack Obama’s nominees — both African American women — did not receive hearings in the Senate.
Republicans in control of the North Carolina General Assembly had hired Farr and others in his law firm to defend congressional boundaries approved in 2011. In 2016, a federal court struck down the map as racial gerrymandering.
Farr also helped defend a 2013 voter ID law in North Carolina that was considered one of the strictest in the nation. A federal court ruled in 2016 that the primary purpose of the law wasn’t to stop voter fraud but to disenfranchise minority voters.
Judiciary Committee Chairman Charles E. Grassley (R-Iowa) said Thursday that it was important to recognize that Farr, as a lawyer, was representing the North Carolina legislature and not expressing his own views in the cases that have drawn scrutiny.
“You ought to represent the views of those who pay you,” Grassley said. “So if the legislature wanted the positions of their laws defended in the courts, then that’s what he was doing. So how can that be an accusation against him?”
Grassley said he also put great stock in the judgment of the two Republican senators from North Carolina — Richard Burr and Thom Tillis — who support Farr.
“You gotta remember, the people that are backing him are credible people,” Grassley said. “I mean, we would be questioning Burr and Tillis’s judgment, and they know him.”
Sean Sullivan contributed to this report.