WASHINGTON (CN) – The Senate on Wednesday narrowly advanced the nomination of a lawyer up for a spot on a North Carolina federal court who helped defend a state voter identification law a federal appeals court found unfairly targeted African American voters.
Thomas Farr, who is nominated to a seat on the U.S. District Court for the Eastern District of North Carolina, cleared a key procedural hurdle on Wednesday afternoon, with Vice President Mike Pence breaking a tie to advance the nominee in a 51-50 vote.
Wednesday’s vote was a key test of Senator Jeff Flake’s vow to oppose all Trump judicial nominees until the Senate votes on a bill aimed at protecting Special Counsel Robert Mueller. When an attempt to bring up the bill failed earlier in the day, Flake stuck to his promise and opposed Farr, uniting with all 49 Democrats in voting no.
Farr has drawn questions throughout his nomination process about his work defending North Carolina in a series of legal challenges to the state’s voting requirements. The Fourth Circuit found one such law targeted African American voters with “almost surgical precision.”
Farr told Senator Amy Klobuchar, D-Minn., during his nominations process that he thought the state legislature had legitimate reasons to enact the voting laws that had nothing to do with race.
“At the time our clients enacted those laws, I do not believe they thought they were purposefully discriminating against African Americans,” Farr told Klobuchar.
Nevertheless, Senate Minority Leader Chuck Schumer, D-N.Y., said earlier Wednesday that Farr’s voting rights record should be disqualifying.
“For the Senate in 2018 to elevate a man to the federal bench who has worked to limit the franchise and game the electoral system would be a black mark on this body,” Schumer said in a floor speech Wednesday.
Farr was also involved in the campaigns of former Republican Senator Jesse Helms, who sent out mailers that targeted black voters with information about voter fraud that the Justice Department said was intended to intimidate voters. Farr has denied knowing about the mailings before they went out.
This background has drawn opposition from civil rights groups such as the NAACP Legal Defense Fund as well as the Congressional Black Caucus, which also objected because Republicans blocked two black women from taking the seat Farr is nominated to fill.
“Given all these concerns, we cannot state forcefully enough our opposition to the nomination of Thomas Farr,” the Congressional Black Caucus wrote in a letter to the Senate Judiciary Committee. “It is no exaggeration to say that had the White House deliberately sought to identify an attorney in North Carolina with a more hostile record on African American voting rights and workers’ rights than Thomas Farr, it could hardly have done so.”
Farr now awaits a final confirmation vote, though the procedural vote signals he is likely to earn confirmation absent a last-minute defection from Republicans.