John L. Sinatra Jr., the Buffalo lawyer nominated for a federal judgeship, is facing opposition from a national civil rights group questioning his view of a 65-year old landmark desegregation ruling.
The Leadership Conference on Civil and Human Rights, based in Washington D.C., claims Sinatra refused to state "unequivocally" that Brown v. Board for Education was correctly decided by the U.S. Supreme Court. The court's justices ruled unanimously that racial segregation in public schools was unconstitutional in the 1954 case.
Sinatra, nominated by President Trump, is one of eight nominees who have pointed to the Code of Conduct for Judges to explain their reluctance to comment on Brown v. Board of Education, according to the organization. The nominees claim the code prohibits them from commenting on past or current cases.
"The fact that they are refusing to answer the question based on judicial canon implies that the issue of racial segregation, racial apartheid is still up for debate," said Lena Zwarensteyn, director of the group's Fair Courts Campaign.
Zwarensteyn said the prospect that the landmark desegregation case might be unsettled is "terrifying."
The Leadership Conference, in a statement this week, called on senators to oppose the confirmation of Sinatra and the seven other judicial nominees. All but two are from New York.
Like most judicial nominees, Sinatra has declined from Day One to comment publicly on his nomination, including the criticism levied this week by the civil rights group.
In an email to The Buffalo News, Matt Lloyd, deputy director of public affairs at the U.S. Department of Justice, said Sinatra made it clear that Plessy vs. Ferguson, the separate but equal law, was incorrectly decided and that Brown overruled it.
Sources close to Sinatra also claim previous Supreme Court nominees have taken the same Code of Conduct stance as Sinatra and never been criticized.
Zwarensteyn said Sinatra was asked about the landmark case in a written communication from Sen. Cory Booker of New Jersey, a member of the Senate Judiciary Committee. She said Sinatra cited the Code of Conduct in his response to Booker.
"They're hiding behind the Code of Conduct," she said of Sinatra and the others.
The Leadership Conference, which was founded in 1950 and currently has 200 member organizations, views Brown v. Board of Education as one of the nation's most "consequential" rulings, a case that ended the "separate but equal" doctrine that served as law of the land for nearly a century.
The organization also noted that Chief Justice John Roberts and recently confirmed Justice Brett Kavanaugh both acknowledged during their confirmation hearings that the case was decided correctly.
If confirmed, Sinatra, who has been nominated twice by Trump, would fill a vacancy that opened up when U.S. District Judge William M. Skretny moved to senior status five years ago. At the time, Sinatra's nomination was seen by lawyers as a much-needed remedy to an overburdened court and its backlog of cases.
A partner in the law firm of Hodgson Russ, Sinatra, 47, specializes in bankruptcy and business litigation.
He was first nominated in May of last year but the Senate never acted on his nomination, forcing Trump to nominate him again this year.
Even though Sinatra enjoys the support of Senate Minority Leader Charles E. Schumer, a New York Democrat, his nomination has come with controversy.
At his Senate hearing, he was asked about his family's ties to Rep. Chris Collins, the Clarence Republican who pushed for his nomination.
"John Sinatra is an impressive, intelligent and fair individual who is held in the highest regard by his legal peers as well as our community," Collins said at the time.
Senate Democrats questioned Sinatra over his brother Nick's business relationship with Collins. The two were partners in several real estate developments.
Despite those questions, the Senate Judiciary Committee approved Sinatra's nomination by a 16-5 vote last year.
A week later, Collins was charged with fraud and conspiracy as part of an insider trading case brought by federal prosecutors. Collins has denied the allegations and is planning to take his case to trial.
Sinatra is not the first nominee for Skretny's vacant spot on the bench.
In 2014, when Skretny announced plans to go to senior status, Schumer recommended former U.S. Attorney Denise O'Donnell, but Obama never nominated her. O'Donnell eventually withdrew her nomination.
Schumer responded by recommending Buffalo attorney Kathleen M. Sweet. This time, Obama followed suit, but the Republican-controlled Senate never acted on her nomination.