Opposition to Nominations of Robert Conrad and Steve Matthews

Media 05.1.08

Recipient: Senate Judiciary Committee

The Honorable Patrick Leahy
Committee on the Judiciary
United States Senate
Washington, DC 20510

Dear Senator Leahy:

On behalf of the Leadership Conference on Civil Rights (LCCR), the nation’s oldest, largest, and most diverse civil and human rights coalition, we write to express our opposition to the nominations of Steve Matthews, who is currently an attorney in private practice; and Robert Conrad, who now sits on the district court in North Carolina, to the United States Court of Appeals for the Fourth Circuit.

The Fourth Circuit, with the largest African-American population of all the circuits, is vitally important to the enforcement of civil rights. Nonetheless, after a long-term effort by the conservative movement to remake this court, it has recently become known for its hostility to civil rights claims. Judge Conrad and Mr. Matthews have nothing in their records that would indicate they are committed to the vigorous enforcement of civil rights. Moreover, this administration’s repeated selection of judges based on ideological criteria – many of whom have gone on to issue decisions that curtail civil rights – disqualifies its nominees from receiving the benefit of the doubt. The Committee must reject these nominations and prevent this administration from perpetuating the rightward tilt of this important circuit court.

Background on the Fourth Circuit

The Fourth Circuit has more African-Americans living within its boundaries than any other circuit in the country, and has one of the fastest growing Latino populations. The decisions of the Fourth Circuit, which is the court of last resort on a wide range of civil rights claims from employment discrimination to voting rights, can thus dramatically affect the rights of minorities.

The court was once a leader, along with the Fifth Circuit, in enforcing school integration and other anti-discrimination measures. Since the 1980s, however, the Fourth Circuit has earned a reputation for its hostility to civil rights claims – the result of many years of a deeply conservative majority of judges, including J. Harvie Wilkinson, Karen Williams and Michael Luttig, and the efforts of conservative policymakers to engineer the court’s deeply conservative approach to civil rights. In 1999, according to The New York Times, the circuit assertively sought to curtail important civil rights protections, such as laws ensuring due process in criminal proceedings and constitutional standards empowering Congress to enact civil rights legislation. As just one example, the Fourth Circuit struck down part of the Violence Against Women Act as outside Congress’s constitutional authority.

Maintaining the conservative majority on the Fourth Circuit appears to be a goal of Senate Republicans since President Clinton’s election in 1992. In fact, Senator Jesse Helms (R-NC) and others preserved vacancies in the circuit in hopes of having a more conservative president fill them. A seat that was vacant at the start of the Clinton presidency went unfilled for the president’s entire tenure in office. Four additional seats, one vacated in July 1994 and three that became vacant in the last two years of Clinton’s presidency, also went unfilled. Despite this history, Republican leaders are taking an uncompromising approach in seeking to fill some of these long-standing vacancies with extremely conservative nominees.

President Bush has thus far appointed three judges to the Fourth Circuit. His impact on the court might be far worse, however, if civil rights groups and other progressive organizations had not successfully fought against nominees like William Haynes and Terrence Boyle, whose records raised deep concerns regarding their commitment to civil and human rights. As a result of the efforts to resist the confirmation of these controversial nominees, there are currently five vacancies on the circuit. The court’s future ideological balance will likely be directly affected by how the current Senate handles pending nominees.

Fourth Circuit Nominees Conrad and Matthews

President Bush has repeatedly nominated individuals to important government offices whose records signaled that they would restrict civil and human rights from the bench. Among the pending Fourth Circuit nominees, the careers and writings of Mr. Matthews and Judge Conrad trace all-too-familiar paths. During the 1980s, Mr. Matthews rapidly ascended in the newly-politiczed Justice Department of the Reagan administration, culminating in a job in the Office of Legal Policy. In this post, he assisted in selecting judicial nominations at a time when the Reagan administration had begun to use the judicial selection process to advance its conservative policy preferences. He also assisted then-Attorney General Edwin Meese during the Iran-Contra investigation. Matthews later took leadership roles with the Federalist Society and the far-right Landmark Legal Foundation (which recently nominated Rush Limbaugh for a Nobel Peace Prize).

Meanwhile, Judge Conrad has written scathingly and derisively about anti-death penalty advocate Helen Prejean, calling her a “church-hating nun” and stating that her book was merely “liberal drivel.” Former Senator John Edwards opposed his nomination to the North Carolina district court when he was still a senator from that state. Later, although Judge Conrad was confirmed to the seat, senators continued to express grave reservations about his district court appointment. Judge Conrad’s short, three-year record on the district court has done nothing to dispel the concerns about his views. Notably, Judge Conrad is now nominated to fill the seat of J. Dickson Phillips, which had been held open since 1994, near the start of the Clinton administration.

Possession of controversial views or membership in controversial organizations in one’s private sphere do not necessarily disqualify one from a judgeship. However this president has selected his nominees, again and again, precisely because of their credentials linking them to  conservative causes and views. These conservative hallmarks – most notably in the case of Chief Justice John Roberts – usually accurately foretold their jurisprudence on the bench.

Moreover, the Fourth Circuit in recent years has embodied decades of conservative-led partisan engineering of the courts – both through the ideologically-based selection of nominees under Republican presidents and through the obstruction of nominees during the Clinton administration. Under these circumstances, President Bush no longer deserves the benefit of the doubt that a president might ordinarily be given. Confirmation of more judges like these poses too great a risk to a circuit with a critically important role in the preservation of civil rights. Neither Mr. Matthews nor Judge Conrad comes to the Committee with anything that would vouch for a commitment to civil rights and the fair-minded administration of justice. In contrast, Fourth Circuit nominee Steven Agee was selected through bipartisan consultation with Virginia Senator James Webb.

For all of these reasons, the nominations of Mr. Matthews and Judge Conrad should be rejected. Nor should the Committee approve any additional nominees in the Fourth Circuit, except for those whose records generate confidence that they will show fidelity to and vigorously enforce our civil rights laws. If you have any questions, please contact Nancy Zirkin at 202-263-2880, or Paul Edenfield, LCCR Counsel and Policy Analyst, at 202-263-2852.


Wade Henderson
President & CEO

Nancy Zirkin
Executive Vice President