Civil Rights Leader Quits NAACP Over Judicial Nominee

A Democratic champion of the left has resigned as a member of the NAACP, saying officials tried to strong-arm him into dropping his endorsement of a controversial Bush judicial nominee.

Los Angeles civil rights attorney and radio talk show host Leo Terrell (search), who has made headlines in recent years for defending friend O.J. Simpson, and speaking out against the Bush administration, accused the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (search) of "an old-fashioned backdoor power-play," and vowed to use his weekly radio show to incriminate the 94-year-old civil rights organization.

"How dare the NAACP tell me who I can or cannot endorse on an individual basis. That is the part that makes this so outrageous," Terrell told "I am going to tell the whole world what the NAACP did to me."

Terrell said he has been a vocal supporter of California judge Carolyn Kuhl (search), nominated by President Bush to the 9th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals (search). The Senate vote on her confirmation was postponed until September by Democratic opponents who cite legal briefs she wrote in the 1980s under the Reagan administration to suggest her record is too far to the right on privacy, civil rights and abortion.

Her opponents are backed by women’s groups and the NAACP, who have been instrumental in rallying behind the Democratic filibuster of several other GOP judicial nominees.

But Terrell said he backs Kuhl because of her courtroom character.

"I am proud to support Judge Kuhl," Terrell said, noting that he has argued civil rights cases in her courtroom. "As a jurist, she was fair and she applied the law."

The split with the NAACP was prompted by a recent press release supporting the judge, and on which Terrell listed his own credentials, including that he has been doing voluntary legal work for the NAACP for 13 years.

The mention of the organization elicited a phone call Wednesday from the NAACP legal office, he said, and the tone was not conciliatory.

"In a nutshell, I got a call from legal counsel in Washington, basically saying I am not an NAACP attorney. I said I have been volunteering my time for 13 years," said Terrell. "They said that the NAACP does not endorse Kuhl, and I said, 'That’s funny, because I do.'"

He said the message was implicit — drop the endorsement or leave the NAACP off your resume. "It’s really horrible, this is two guys back in Washington calling me out here telling me to drop my endorsement or don’t call yourself an NAACP attorney."

So he decided to take their advice and quit.

"I support her 100 percent and I’m not going to change that," he said. "From a standpoint of knowing what to do, this was the easiest decision of my life."

Officials from the NAACP headquarters in Maryland did not return calls for comment on Thursday.

Terrell isn’t the first black activist to put himself at risk of retribution from within the black establishment for endorsing the so-called enemy. The head of the Mississippi Legislative Black Caucus, Phillip West (search), announced in May that he would support the nomination of Judge Charles Pickering to the 5th Circuit Court of Appeals.

Pickering's nomination was ultimately blocked by Democrats who said he was too conservative — and hinted too racist — for the bench. West’s endorsement was met with staunch criticism from his black colleagues.

"Our strength is in the pack," said Mississippi Democratic Rep. Tom Wallace. "I don't think it's healthy for a bunch of us to go out individually. We need to ride with what the group stands for."

Ron Walters, director of the African American Leadership Institute (search), said it is no surprise that the NAACP did not want its name used on a press release touting an individual member’s personal point of view.

“You can always exercise your First Amendment rights, just don’t put the name of the organization on it,” he said, noting that most groups have the same policy. “This is no surprise. This is his private agenda.”

But Niger Innis (search), a spokesman for the Congress for Racial Equality (search), a conservative black think tank, said Terrell, who is often his verbal adversary on television news programs, must have "gotten religion" and seen the light regarding liberal strong-arm tactics.

"There was a time when the NAACP was truly viewed as being non-partisan," he said. "They have become a totally ideological vehicle. They have gone from being the grandfather of the civil rights revolution to a political operation and a wing of the Democratic Party."

Terrell said he is disillusioned by the latest turn of events.

"It turned out to be a really phony organization," he said.