Thomas Farr May Have Known More About Jesse Helms’s Voter-Suppression Tactics Than He Let On. Should That Cost Him a Federal Judgeship? | News Feature | Indy Week
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Thomas Farr May Have Known More About Jesse Helms’s Voter-Suppression Tactics Than He Let On. Should That Cost Him a Federal Judgeship? 

Julie and William Boler of Raleigh received a postcard from the Helms campaign in 1990.

Photo by Caitlin Penna

Julie and William Boler of Raleigh received a postcard from the Helms campaign in 1990.

President Trump and North Carolina senators Thom Tillis and Richard Burr proudly stand behind Raleigh attorney Thomas Farr's decades-long legal practice, which includes defending the General Assembly's controversial voter ID and redistricting laws, defending corporations against workers, and serving as the lawyer for two racially charged campaigns by Senator Jesse Helms.

After all, Trump nominated Farr, sixty-three, to a lifetime appointment as a federal district court judge in eastern North Carolina. Even though his bid made it through the key Senate Judiciary Committee last month, one roadblock could stand in Farr's way—the question of whether he gave truthful statements about a controversial 1990 mailing by the Helms campaign, consisting of thousands of postcards that a federal court said were intended to suppress voting by African Americans.

In response to a written questionnaire, Farr told Senator Dianne Feinstein of California that he knew nothing about the postcards until they had been sent.

"Did you provide any counsel, or were you consulted in any way, about the content of or the decision to send these postcards?" Feinstein asked.

"No," Farr replied. He also told Illinois Democratic Senator Dick Durbin that he was horrified to see the postcards' content.

But a chronology of the events surrounding the postcards—and interviews with a federal attorney who was part of the Department of Justice's probe into them—calls into question what Farr knew, and when. The INDY's initial reporting last week prompted Feinstein to call Farr's statements "greatly disturbing."

Although Farr has not responded to the INDY's attempts to reach him, what is clear about the disputed incident is that the postcards caused disruption, confusion, and likely lower turnout among African-American voters.

Julie and William Boler were among thousands of North Carolina voters who were sent mailers from the N.C. Republican Party informing them, falsely, that they had to have lived in their precinct for at least thirty days to be able to vote and could face jail time if they provided false voter information. The mailers appeared to target African-American, Democratic precincts.

Julie Boler, fifty-five, who is white, vividly remembers the day her husband, William, fifty-nine, who is African American, got one in the mail. At the time, they had been living in Raleigh's Mordecai neighborhood for about a year, and were surprised to see language indicating that they could get in trouble if they provided the wrong information.

"We were looking at it, and it just seemed like you would basically be afraid to go vote, in case you would do something wrong," Julie recalls. "We were informed voters, so we knew exactly where we lived and what our rights were. So it was more for us just a creepy feeling that you're seeing in your hands this racist tactic. I looked at his, and it was really intimidating. It was just so tangible that William was being targeted. And the wording on the card just gave you a chill."

The postcards were just one piece of the bitter 1990 Senate race between the incumbent Helms, a conservative firebrand, and Harvey Gantt, who had been Charlotte's first African-American mayor. As the race tightened, Helms worked furiously to make sure Gantt wouldn't win, driving a racially charged Senate campaign that was widely viewed as dredging up dog whistles.

Helms's media team was responsible for engineering one of the most egregiously race-based advertisements in modern political history: "Hands," which criticized Gantt for supporting racial quotas. Running in late October, the ad showed a pair of white hands crumpling up a job rejection letter. "You needed that job and you were the best qualified," a narrator said somberly. "But they had to give it to a minority because of a racial quota. Is that really fair?"

The message was clear. As one Helms supporter told The News & Observer during the race, if Gantt were elected, "he'd give [tax money] away to the hippies, the Jews, the niggers."

The tale of the postcards emerges in decades-old legal documents and newspaper stories so old that many aren't on the web. Many of the details are contained in a federal lawsuit, filed February 26, 1992, in the district where Farr will be a judge if confirmed by the full Senate, and resolved the following day in a consent decree signed by Farr, among others.

In the summer of 1990, Helms's campaign and the state GOP "discussed whether to conduct a so-called ballot security program," the complaint says, referring to various techniques ostensibly meant to prevent fraud but often resulting in scaring people away from the polls. (Farr was general counsel for the campaign, as he had been in 1984, during another racially loaded contest, by incumbent Helms against Governor Jim Hunt.)

Then came a surprise. In mid-October, the state Board of Elections released figures showing that black voter registration grew 10.6 percent between April and October, twice the rate of white voters. In what seemed like a related development, a Charlotte Observer poll showed Gantt with an eight-point lead.

The Helms crew decided to take action.

On October 16 and 17, members of the Helms campaign and an attorney, who according to the complaint "had been involved in past ballot security efforts on behalf of Senator Helms" and the Republican Party, had several meetings on ballot security issues that led to the infamous postcard campaign.

J. Gerald Hebert, a former Department of Justice attorney, told the N&O in 2009 and the INDY last week that Farr was the unnamed lawyer in the complaint.

In fact, according to what Hebert says are his handwritten, contemporaneous notes, which he sent to the INDY, Farr was Helms's primary ballot security person in the 1984 senatorial campaign, and he was part of the team that decided to send postcards to African-American voters in 1984 and 1990.

Hebert's notes also allege that Farr held a mid-October 1990 meeting at his law office on ballot security, where Farr said that the postcards should go to mostly black and Democratic precincts, potentially for use in ballot challenges.

If these notes are accurate, Farr had early knowledge of the postcards, which contradicts what he told the Senate committee.

On Monday, N.C. Central law professor Erv Joyner, who fought the Helms campaign as part of the North Carolina Association of Black Lawyers, said he also remembered Farr as an architect of the postcard campaign, not just the lawyer who defended it.

On October 26 and 29, at least eighty-one thousand postcards containing misleading voting information were mailed under the direction of state GOP chair Jack Hawke, mostly to African Americans, according to the DOJ complaint.

By October 31, local and national media were all over the story, with the N&O, The New York Times, and The Washington Post running pieces the next day. Hawke told the media that the postcard mailing was legitimate, even though "he knew or should have known that the postcard contained false and/or misleading information" and was targeted based in part on race, according to the consent decree.

Farr has said he never saw or discussed the controversial postcards until he received word from the Department of Justice. Given the media swarm in late October, that seems unlikely.

On November 6, The Washington Post reported that the Justice Department had said the day before that it was investigating the N.C. Republican Party for possible violations of civil rights laws in connection with the postcard mailing.

"We immediately decided to send out the FBI," Hebert says. "The chair of the party in North Carolina, Jack Hawke, refused to talk to us. He referred us to his attorney, Mr. Farr."

On November 7, Helms won a fourth term, drawing 1.08 million votes to Gantt's 974,701. Helms would continue serving in the Senate until 2003. He died in 2008.

It took about sixteen months for the feds to complete their investigation. When it was over, Farr signed a consent decree resolving federal charges against the Helms campaign, the state Republican Party, and others. The defendants did not admit guilt but agreed to refrain from intimidating voters.

Though the mailers were sent out twenty-seven years ago, the postcard scheme is back in the news today. The reason: Trump's nomination of Farr for a federal judgeship in the Eastern District of North Carolina. Farr's past has civil rights advocates speaking out against his elevation to the bench.

The Congressional Black Caucus, in a letter opposing Farr's nomination, wrote that the nominee has "amassed a record that puts him at the forefront of an extended fight to disenfranchise African-American voters in his home state of North Carolina."

That record includes defending North Carolina when the Republican-dominated legislature enacted a voter ID law that the Fourth Circuit Court determined targeted African Americans "with almost surgical precision," and defending the legislature's 2011 legislative districts, which are currently being redrawn after a lower court struck down twenty-eight of them as illegal racial gerrymanders.

"It is no exaggeration to say that had the White House deliberately sought to identify an attorney in North Carolina with a more hostile record on African-American voting rights and workers' rights than Thomas Farr, it hardly could have done so," the CBC concluded.

Farr's controversial record is compounded by the optics. The Eastern District, which spans forty-four counties, is nearly 30 percent black. The court has never had a black judge, but it got close under President Obama, who nominated two African-American women for the position. Their nominations never went anywhere, because Burr blocked them. (Senate Republicans recently announced that they are doing away with the so-called blue-slip tradition, which permits senators to obstruct judicial appointments in their home states.)

Farr's nomination fits into a broader pattern of the remaking of the judiciary under Trump, who has nominated an unprecedented number of white, male judges to the federal bench. According to an analysis by the Associated Press, Trump has selected the least diverse pool of judicial nominees in decades: 91 percent of the fifty-eight candidates are white, and 81 percent are male. (The last president to select such a homogenous group was George H.W. Bush.)

Trump has a rare opportunity to radically reshape the courts. He inherited an exceptionally high number of judicial vacancies, thanks in large part to the Senate's decision to block all of Barack Obama's nominations in the final year of his presidency.

"They want to put [Farr] in the Eastern District of North Carolina, in a district that has never had an African American sit on that bench," says the Reverend William J. Barber II, the former president of the N.C. NAACP. "It's cynicism at its highest."

In September, Farr appeared before the Senate Judiciary Committee, and, in written comments provided to the members, he said he had not provided counsel about the decision to send the postcards and didn't know about them until after they were sent.

If Hebert and Joyner are correct that Farr was involved in the planning process that led to those postcards, that would mean that Farr misled Feinstein.

"I don't think [Farr] can really claim that the first he heard of it was from a Justice Department letter," Hebert told the INDY last week.

But it's not just the revelations about Farr's potentially untruthful testimony that civil rights advocates find troubling. It's the arc of his entire legal career—his defense of the Helms campaign, the voter ID bill, and the state's gerrymandered legislative and congressional districts.

For Julie Boler, the idea that Farr could be tapped for a lifelong federal judgeship is "really discouraging," especially since he could end up ruling on cases that touch on the civil and voting rights issues he litigated earlier in his career.

"By the time a case of possibly voter suppression gets to the courts, you just hope that somebody extremely objective and devoted to the rule of law, not biased at all, is going to hear the case," she says. "What he was defending was just very specifically race-based voter intimidation. So it's just worrying to think that he could be appointed."

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