Puzzling stall of federal judgeship nomination in Georgia
Dax Lopez is a judge of the State Court of DeKalb County, nominated by lame-duck President Obama to fill a vacant seat on the U.S. District court in Atlanta, as an apparent bipartisan compromise to fill the seat with Republican approval. Surprisingly for an Obama nominee, Judge Lopez is a conservative Republican, a longtime member of the conservative Federalist Society, and a graduate of the Coverdell Leadership Institute which is the forerunner of the current Republican Leadership for Georgia program. He was initially appointed as a judge by conservative Republican Governor Sonny Perdue, cousin of US Senator David Perdue. He is also Hispanic, having been born in the US territory of Puerto Rico and moved to Georgia with his family when he was six years old.
Unlike an earlier Hispanic judge whose prospect for promotion to federal court was sunk a few years ago due to lack of proper documentation when he came to the US as a small child, Judge Lopez is a US citizen born to parents who were US citizens. He is not an immigrant, much less an illegal immigrant or “anchor baby.” He clerked for a federal judge and worked in a large corporate law firm before Republican Governor Perdue appointed him to DeKalb State Court at age 34. He has been a good, fair, well-respected trial judge.
When I was weighing whether or not to take another shot at appointment to the Georgia Court of Appeals last year, after making the “short list” in 2012, I figured Judge Lopez was a likely appointee. That seemed logical, as Governor Deal prefers appointing judges who are young, conservative and if possible provide some degree of diversity. Having seen a young Asian American woman selected for the seat for which I thought I might have a chance at the end of 2012, I suspected Judge Lopez, as a young, conservative Hispanic judge, could be a slam dunk for a Republican appointment to the Georgia Court of Appeals or Supreme Court.
Then, several months ago, when the Obama administration nominated Judge Lopez for an opening on the United States District Court for the Northern District of Georgia, it appeared to be a bipartisan compromise to fill the court post in an election year with someone who would be readily accepted by Georgia’s two Republican senators. After all, Judge Lopez was a conservative Republican appointed by Senator David Perdue’s cousin, Governor Sonny Perdue. Some of the top Republicans in Georgia openly endorsed his nomination.
But then anti-immigration activists and two sheriffs began raising sand about the fact that Judge Lopez was a member of the Georgia Association of Latino Elected Officials (GALEO), though he resigned that membership after he was nominated for the federal court. Not surprisingly, GALEO had opposed anti-immigrant legislation and discrimination which heavily impacts Hispanics. Also not surprisingly, Judge Lopez as the second Hispanic judge in Georgia, was a board member of the organization, even though he was a conservative Republican not active on that issue.
Until recently, my fellow Republicans were intent on reaching out to Hispanics as the fastest growing group of voters in the U.S. As a member of the Republican National Lawyers Association, I thought that was a good idea even though it might have further reduced my chances of getting a judicial appointment. (My chances were virtually nonexistent anyway due to age, as in recent years most appellate court appointees have been 15 to 25 years younger, and I ultimately decided not to bother again with the nomination process.)
Knowing the need to fill the open seat on the U.S. District Court in Atlanta, it seemed like a fair compromise for the administration to nominate Judge Lopez, who it would have seemed would easily gain approval by Georgia’s Republican U.S. Senators.
Judge Lopez is a good judge worthy of a promotion. As a conservative Republican and member of the Federalist Society, he was a surprising choice for the current administration. He would have seemed a more likely choice for a Cruz or Rubio administration if either of them were to win next November.
Whatever the opponents say, the political opposition to Judge Lopez looks like it is based upon the fact that he is Latino rather than anything he personally has done or said. Such politics is way above my pay grade, but to me the opposition to his nomination is unfortunate in both substance and appearance.
In light of the stalling of his federal nomination, Judge Lopez is running hard for reelection as Judge of the State Court of DeKalb County.
One of my college classmates at Furman was a shot putter named Bill Dimitrouleas from Florida. In 1992, President George H. W. Bush nominated him to be a judge of the U.S. District Court for the Southern District of Florida. That nomination died when Bush lost to Clinton in the 1992 election, and my classmate stayed on as a Circuit Court Judge in Fort Lauderdale. Later, in 1998, President Clinton renominated him, and since 1998 he has been the highly respected U.S. District Judge William P. Dimitrouleas.
While such bipartisan selection is rare, if Judge Lopez is not confirmed by the Senate this year, he would seem to be a great choice to be renominated if a Republican is elected President later this year.
Ken Shigley is past president of the State Bar of Georgia, past chair of the Institute for Continuing Legal Education in Georgia Board of Trustees, and a board certified civil trial attorney of the National Board of Trial advocacy. After his term as State Bar president, the Georgia Judicial Nominating Commission included him in the “short list” for appointment to the Court of Appeals of Georgia.