A white GOP senator tried to smear a Black judicial nominee over his “rap sheet” of speeding tickets

Despite what Marsha Blackburn would have you believe, going 5 miles over the speed limit does not mean you have a “criminal record.”

UNITED STATES - NOVEMBER 03: Sen. Marsha Blackburn, R-Tenn., attends a Senate Judiciary Committee co...
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When President Biden nominated attorney Andre Mathis to sit on the Sixth Circuit Court of Appeals, it’s a fairly safe bet that neither man could have guessed that the prominent Memphis, Tennessee, attorney’s path to the federal bench would be stymied by a strangely racist dog whistle from Mathis’s home state senator. Well, that’s not entirely true, because the senator in question is Marsha Blackburn, one of the more enthusiastically unhinged Republicans in office today. But even by her admittedly low bar of awfulness — from homophobia to birtherism to general weirdo behavior —Blackburn’s attacks on Mathis during his confirmation hearing this week were a step beyond.

After opening her time with a series of questions regarding what she saw as Mathis’s lack of judicial experience and “woe is me” complaining about the nominating process at large, Blackburn made a hard right turn into non-sequitur territory, explaining that Mathis, who is Black, “has a RAP sheet with a laundry list of citations, including multiple failures to appear in court.” That term, “RAP sheet,” is one with a specific association with criminal acts (“Record of Arrest and Prosecution”).

“In Tennessee, we expect our judges to respect the law,” Blackburn continued, plowing ahead in her invocation of the longstanding stereotype of Black male criminality. “If Mr. Mathis thought he was above the law before, imagine how he’ll conduct himself if he’s confirmed as a federal judge.”

Just what was Mathis’s crime? Speeding tickets. Three of them. From more than a decade ago.

“If speeding tickets are a RAP sheet, well, I’ve got one too,” Democratic Sen. Dick Durbin (Ill.) noted wryly, before giving an obviously emotional Mathis the opportunity to respond to the attack on his character.

“I highly regret that I’m in this situation,” Mathis began. “I feel like I’ve embarrassed my family. I truly regret that. While I deserve this, they don’t.”

“I’ve never been arrested, I’ve never been charged with a crime,” he added.

Mathis then went through each speeding ticket case by case, explaining that he’d forgotten to pay a fine for speeding, and was subsequently notified by the Tennessee Department of Motor Vehicles that his license had been suspended as a result. He then paid the tickets and ... that was it. Problem solved. Quite the hardened criminal, no? Right up there with the time police pulled over Blackburn herself, only to let her go without incident after she flashed her congressional pin.

Commenting on Blackburn’s hamfisted attempt to paint a Black man as disqualifyingly criminal and corrupt, former NAACP President Cornell William Brooks described watching the hearing as “extraordinarily painful” during an interview with CNN.

“Here we have the first woman elected to the United States Senate from the state of Tennessee humiliating, denigrating, demeaning a Black man who has the opportunity to be the first Black man to serve on the U.S. Court of Appeals on the Sixth Circuit,” Brooks said.

“One out of every three American adults has a criminal record, that is to say, a record of arrest,” Brooks continued. “77 million people. He’s not one of them!”

Mathis now awaits a committee vote to advance his nomination to the Senate floor.