As part of the racial controversy that has swirled around Senator George Allen over the past several months, the citizens of Virginia have been subjected to a barrage of ancient allegations dating as far back as the Nixon administration. However, we have heard very little about the actual record of George Allen as a governor and a senator and how he has affected race relations in Virginia. And we certainly haven’t been reminded about an act of political courage done by Senator Allen in his first days in the Senate in 2001, an act I witnessed first-hand.
Nominations to the United States court of appeals for the Fourth Circuit have spawned intense political struggles for more than a decade. After Senate Democrats refused to act on the nomination of North Carolina Judge Terry Boyle in 1992, Senate Republicans later reciprocated on a series of nominees from North Carolina, including several blacks, made by President Clinton. As his presidency reached its final months, President Clinton nominated a Virginian, Roger Gregory of Richmond, for the seat traditionally held by a North Carolinian. Conservatives claimed that the nomination had been made solely to generate political pressure on Governor Allen in his close race with the incumbent Senator Chuck Robb.
Gregory did not receive a confirmation hearing before Congress adjourned in late 2000, and, while his nomination was stalled, George Allen defeated Robb. With George Bush narrowly winning the presidential election, Senate Republicans giddily anticipated filling all appellate vacancies with conservative nominees after eight years in the appointment wilderness.
President Clinton, however, for the first time in decades, made a recess appointment for an appellate seat of a nominee that the Senate had refused to confirm. Roger Gregory became Judge Gregory, and George Allen had a tough decision to make. Nearly all Republicans, and especially those who followed the politics of judicial appointments, were furious at President Clinton’s escalation and urged President Bush to appoint a true conservative to the critical Fourth Circuit. Influential groups like the Eagle Forum and Free Congress urged the president not to renominate Judge Gregory. Many conservatives questioned Judge Gregory’s qualifications for the position and made reference to the alleged political machinations behind his appointment. It was hard to imagine that the president and his staff would pass up the opportunity to put another superstar nominee on the already conservative Fourth Circuit.
Into this firestorm walked George Allen. Many expected the up-and-coming Republican to use the Gregory situation to bolster his conservative bona fides. Many who have heard the attacks on George Allen over the past month probably would guess that he jumped at the chance to pander to the conservative base.
Instead, Senator Allen chose to make his very first speech on the Senate floor an eloquent plea to President Bush to renominate Judge Gregory so that he might obtain a lifetime appointment on the bench. On January 25, 2001, Senator Allen stated:
We must act in the best interest of the judiciary and the country. I ask my colleagues today to recognize that no good for our judiciary or our country can be achieved by now striking back at the former President. Let us rise above this procedural aggravation and act in a statesmen-like manner. I submit to you and to my colleagues that Judge Roger L. Gregory is an exemplary citizen of the Commonwealth of Virginia. He has a sense of the properly restrained role of the judiciary and is eminently qualified to serve with distinction. I respectfully ask my colleagues to hold the requisite hearing, after which I believe you will share my positive impression of Judge Roger Gregory, and thereafter confirm him to the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Fourth Circuit.
Never before in American history had a president of one party renominated an individual originally nominated for an appellate judgeship by another political party. However, on May 9, President Bush announced his intention to renominate Judge Gregory, and, after a speedy Senate confirmation process, he was confirmed on July 20. In the area of the country with the largest percentage of blacks, he became the first African American to receive the lifetime judicial appointment. His nomination and confirmation were unprecedented and clearly would not have happened without the active support of Senator Allen.
So, as you consider the swirl of rumor and innuendo, take one minute to reflect on this event. Judge Roger Gregory is not only an example of the racial progress our nation has made but also an important, albeit overlooked, part of the prestigious public record of Senator George Allen.
– C. Stewart Verdery, Jr. is president of the Monument Policy Group in Washington, D.C. He served as General Counsel to Senate Assistant Majority Leader Don Nickles from 1998-2002.