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Sessions Is in the Spotlight

Bill Clark/Roll Call
Sen. Jeff Sessions, seen outside the Senate after the Tuesday luncheons, will play a prominent role in the debate over a Supreme Court nominee as the top Judiciary Committee Republican.

Correction Appended

The aftershocks from Sen. Arlen Specter’s (Pa.) defection continued Tuesday as Democrats officially welcomed him into their ranks and Republicans agreed to place Sen. Jeff Sessions (R-Ala.) in the forefront of the looming Supreme Court nomination fight.

While Specter was being greeted by a standing ovation at his first Democratic Conference luncheon — he sat with fellow moderate Sen. Ben Nelson (Neb.) — Republicans voted to elevate Sessions, a strong conservative and former U.S. attorney and Alabama attorney general, to become the ranking member on the Judiciary Committee.

Sessions’ rise will thrust him into the national spotlight when President Barack Obama announces his pick to replace retiring Justice David Souter.

After his meeting with fellow Republicans, Sessions struck a conciliatory tone — but stressed he will not back a nominee who uses his political or personal views to shape rulings.

“I would not support one who allows his personal views to justify making the law say what it is [he] wants to say,” Sessions said. Sessions also criticized Obama’s repeated desire to appoint a candidate with “empathy” to the Supreme Court.

“It’s dangerous because I don’t know what empathy means,” Sessions said.

But Sessions made clear that a candidate with empathy would not necessarily be disqualified, arguing that he will not allow a nominee’s political or philosophical views to shape his position on confirmation if the nominee demonstrates a respect for the law as it is written.

“Nominees can be Democrats, they can be liberals, as long as they have a deep commitment for the law and recognize that when they put on the robe, they go beyond politics and they are required to subordinate themselves to the law as written,” Sessions said.

The Alabaman added, “I do believe a person’s political views and philosophical views and religious views are not things that ought to be held against them if they can convince me or the panel that they are committed to the law.”

Sessions said he hoped the confirmation process would go as smoothly as it did for Chief Justice John Roberts. Democrats largely declined to administer a political beating to Roberts despite sharp philosophical differences.

“I could absolutely see something like Judge Roberts. I think the American people expect the loyal opposition to ask tough questions of the nominee. But those questions ought to be fair; they ought not distort the record of the nominee,” Sessions said.

Democrats are not convinced that Republicans will take an evenhanded approach to the confirmation process, and several Democrats noted that Sessions’ staunchly conservative past could make bipartisanship difficult.

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