Scott prolongs drama on controversial judge nominee, still unsure if he’ll back Farr

Sen. Tim Scott — after nearly 40 minutes of keeping his colleagues in suspense — on Wednesday emerged from a room off the Senate floor and cast a decisive vote that kept a controversial judicial nomination alive.

A final vote is expected on Thursday on whether to confirm Thomas Farr, accused by critics of actively working to disenfranchise black voters, to be a federal judge in the Eastern District of North Carolina.

Scott is the Senate’s only black Republican and has a history of breaking with his party on race issues.

He’ll be the deciding vote.

Farr, a 64-year-old attorney, first became controversial as an aide on the 1990 reelection campaign of then-Sen. Jesse Helms, D-North Carolina. Decades later, he was the chief legal defender of a voter ID law a federal appeals court overturned in 2016 on grounds it was intentionally discriminatory.

The Senate voted 51-50 Wednesday to limit debate on Farr’s nomination, with Vice President Mike Pence breaking the tie.

Speaking to reporters after the vote, Scott suggested that whatever decision he makes on Farr’s nomination, the current controversy was perhaps of the Republican Party’s own making.

“We are not doing a very good job of avoiding the obvious potholes on race in America and we ought to be more sensitive when it comes to those issues,” Scott told reporters. “There are a lot of of folks that can be judges, in states including North Carolina, besides Tom Farr.”

Earlier in the day, Scott had put in a call personally to Farr. At one point, he’d spent an hour discussing the nominee with Sen. Lindsey Graham, R-South Carolina, who is poised to take over as chairman of the Senate Judiciary Committee next year.

As the Wednesday afternoon vote was taking actually place, Scott was speaking on the phone with the author of a Department of Justice memo, first reported by The Washington Post on Tuesday night, detailing what role Farr might have played in a the black voter suppression strategy deployed by the Helms campaign.

He finally emerged and quietly recorded his position as “yes,” the very last member to vote.

Over the last 24 hours, he had been repeatedly informing journalists, aides and close confidants that he had not made up his mind on Farr, that he was still “doing his homework” and “doing research.” Following the vote on Wednesday, Scott said he would continue to deliberate, perhaps by following up with another phone call to the authors of the Justice Department document.

Scott has been the subject of intense pressure from fellow Democrats and civil rights activists to oppose Farr. They pointed to another judicial nominee he helped defeat earlier this year: Ryan Bounds, a contender for a judgeship on the Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals who had authored racially-insensitive writings decades earlier.

“I do want to say that we’re very grateful that Sen. Tim Scott did oppose the (Bounds) nomination, (but) I can’t imagine that if he opposed the Ninth Circuit nomination that he could possibly vote for this nominee,” said Del. Eleanor Holmes Norton, D-District of Columbia, a member of the Congressional Black Caucus, in a press call Tuesday.

But Bounds had a paper trail for Scott to consider. Farr, on the other hand, has denied his involvement in implementing the Helms campaign tactics and insisted he had no role in drafting the controversial 2013 North Carolina voter ID law.

This has made Scott’s deliberations more complicated, sources explained, forcing the senator to make a decision based on who he believed was telling the truth: Farr and his allies, or his harshest detractors.

Scott had to trust his own instincts in early 2017 when faced with the question of whether to vote to confirm then-Sen. Jeff Sessions, R-Alabama, to be attorney general. Critics pointed out that Sessions’ history on race matters disqualified him from being confirmed to a judgeship in 1986. Decades later, Scott concluded he did not believe Sessions had a racist record.

Anti-Farr forces have also focused on Scott because of his record speaking about issues of race and race relations in the United States.

In August 2017, after a white nationalist rally in Charlottesville, Virginia, turned deadly, Scott said Trump’s “moral authority” had been “compromised” by the president blaming counter-protesters for the violence along with the white supremacists. A few months later, Scott was summoned to the White House to impress upon the president the weight of history on race relations in America.

Scott has also gone to the Senate floor to speak about his own experiences with racism. He has read aloud racist tweets at his expense and described experiences where he’s been stopped by police officers — while driving his car, shopping at stores, even while going about his business as an elected official on Capitol Hill.

On Wednesday, Scott acknowledged Republicans need to overcome their blind spots when it comes to optics around race issues. He suggested part of that process involved “bringing people together, whether you agree or disagree with them, and have conversations so that at least you understand and appreciate and learn to trust the intentions of the person, as opposed to having tit-for-tat conversations or transactional decisions that are sometimes helpful in the short-term but not good strategy long-term.”

In the meantime, Scott said he would not hint at how he was leaning.

“I’m not going to discuss that at all,” he said.

Emma Dumain covers Congress and congressional leadership for McClatchy DC and the company’s newspapers around the country. She previously covered South Carolina politics out of McClatchy’s Washington bureau. From 2008-2015, Dumain was a congressional reporter for CQ Roll Call.
Brian Murphy covers North Carolina’s congressional delegation and state issues from Washington, D.C., for The News & Observer, The Charlotte Observer and The Herald-Sun. He grew up in Cary and graduated from UNC-Chapel Hill. He previously worked for news organizations in Georgia, Idaho and Virginia. Reach him at 202.383.6089 or