On Wednesday, the Senate Judiciary Committee held confirmation hearings for five of President Joe Biden’s latest judicial nominees, including Nusrat Choudhury and Natasha Merle, both nominated to the District Court of the Eastern District of New York, and Nancy Abudu, to the 11th Circuit Court of Appeals. For the committee’s Republicans, however, the hearings were less a chance to ask the nominees normal, reasonable questions than an opportunity to complain about others calling them out for being bigots.
Choudhury, Merle, and Abudu have long careers as civil rights advocates. Choudhury currently serves as Legal Director for the American Civil Liberties Union of Illinois, and worked for seven years for the ACLU’s Racial Justice program. Abudu is the Strategic Litigation Director for the Southern Poverty Law Center, where she focuses on voting rights. Merle is Deputy Director for the NAACP Legal Defense Fund where she works on racial justice issues in education and the criminal legal system. Their nominations are part of the Biden administration’s ongoing efforts to increase the professional diversity of the federal judiciary.
It was Abudu’s history with the SPLC, though, on which Republicans honed in on Wednesday. As part of its works, the SPLC monitors the activities of white supremacist and other hate groups, a term it defines to include groups with “beliefs or practices that attack or malign an entire class of people.” Three current GOP committee members—Missouri’s Josh Hawley, Tennessee’s Marsha Blackburn, and Texas’s Ted Cruz—appeared on the SPLC’s 2019 “Hate Goes to Washington” report, which profiled lawmakers who “traffic in hate and extremism.” For this trio, Abudu’s hearing was the chance to get very upset about their inclusion in it.
“Can you explain how the three of us ended up on your hate list?,” asked Blackburn, who in 2014 received an award from the anti-Muslim group ACT for America. Abudu responded that as the director of the SPLC’s legal program, she is not involved with the political advocacy side of the organization’s work and couldn’t really speak to the matter any further.
That did not stop the report’s other featured lawmakers from continuing to press her, though. “Your employer has labeled three members of this Committee: myself, Senators Hawley and Blackburn white supremacists. Do you agree with that characterization?,” asked Cruz, who ran an ad during his failed 2016 presidential campaign vowing to end federal stewardship of public lands in Nevada, an important agenda item for anti-government extremists. he asked. Cruz went on to call the SPLC a “hateful and extreme place.” Apparently, Cruz defines “hateful” as any comment about him that he finds mean.
Hawley, meanwhile, attempted to discredit the SPLC and its categorizations of hate groups altogether. “Your organization is infamous for designating anyone who disagrees with it a hate group trying to drive them from public life,” he said. “I can’t believe you’ve been nominated to this position.”
Utah Senator Mike Lee granted Abudu a brief reprieve by confronting Choudhury about signing onto a 2018 open letter that characterized Hawley, their fellow Yale Law School alum, as a “coastal elite climbing a political ladder.” Choudhury apologized for signing on to what she called “overheated language,” although I, personally, do not detect any lies therein.
The Republicans’ conduct on Wednesday is part of a recurring pattern of distorting the records of Biden nominees with extensive civil rights or criminal defense experience. This is because Republicans do not think lawyers with this experience are qualified for federal judgeships. For them, the purposes of the legal system are to put poor people in jail and protect corporations from accountability. Everyone else is an interloper whose presence is annoying and inconvenient.