06/14/2007 11:46 am ET Updated May 25, 2011

Leslie Southwick Could Turn Back the Clock on Social Justice Progress

Among the states, Mississippi and Louisiana have the highest percentage of African-Americans -- around one-third -- and roughly 12 percent of Texans are African-American. Yet there's only one African American on the highest federal appeals court for those states, the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Fifth Circuit -- only the U.S. Supreme Court is higher. President Bush has made seven nominations to the Fifth Circuit. But he didn't take advantage of even one of those opportunities to increase diversity on the court by selecting an African American. I find that upsetting in its own right, but that's not why I'm opposing one of Bush's current nominees to the Fifth Circuit, Leslie Southwick.

Southwick, a former Mississippi state court judge, is the president's third nominee for a seat on the court historically reserved for Mississippians. Bush previously tried to fill the seat with Charles Pickering and then Michael Wallace, but both failed to win confirmation due largely to their disturbing legal records on civil rights. Unfortunately, Judge Southwick has a controversial legal record of his own.

Southwick's nomination has already garnered significant opposition from leaders in the fight for civil rights, including the Congressional Black Caucus, Mississippi NAACP, and the Magnolia Bar, the historically black Mississippi bar association. In a promising development, Senator Barack Obama recently came out in opposition as well, citing his fear that Southwick "would not adequately defend the rights of workers and enforce civil rights laws."

One case in particular highlights why so many civil rights advocates have expressed concern about Southwick. In 1998 he joined a ruling in an employment case that upheld the reinstatement -- with back pay and without disciplinary action -- of a white state employee who had been fired for calling an African-American co-worker a "good old nigger." The ruling effectively ratified a hearing officer's report which stated that the slur was only "somewhat derogatory" and, in this case, akin to calling the African-American employee a "teacher's pet."

The report also concluded that the employer, a state social services agency, had "overreacted" in firing the white employee and suggested that if the court upheld the firing, then employees might seek disciplinary action if they were called "honkie, or a good old boy or Uncle Tom or chubby or fat or slim." It's pretty telling that the Mississippi Supreme Court, which isn't exactly known as a hotbed of liberalism, unanimously overturned the decision.

Other aspects of Southwick's record also cast doubt on his commitment to equality for all citizens before the law. The Mississippi NAACP analyzed his rulings in cases involving claims of race discrimination in jury selection and found that "[d]ozens of such cases reveal a pattern by which Southwick rejects claims that the prosecution was racially motivated in striking African-American jurors while upholding claims that the defense struck white jurors on the basis of their race." This is not the sort of record that should be rewarded with a lifetime appointment to the second highest court in the land.

Given the Democratic takeover of Congress and renewed interest in racial inequality following the disaster of Hurricane Katrina -- which struck the Fifth Circuit states -- you might have expected Bush to nominate a consensus nominee. But mere days after the new Congress was sworn in this January, he nominated Southwick.

During the civil rights era, judges from the Fifth Circuit played key roles in the fight for equality. But in the intervening years the court has swung far to the right and encroached upon some of the gains of the past.

Leslie Southwick will come before the Senate Judiciary Committee for a vote next Thursday, and Democrats can and should stop the nomination in its tracks right there. Now is the time to contact your senators and demand that they stop Southwick before he gets a lifetime opportunity to roll back decades-worth of social justice gains.