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As Incoming Judiciary Chairman, Goodlatte Will Face Immigration, Criminal Law, Civil Rights

Virginia Rep. Robert W. Goodlatte is a mild-mannered Republican known for his expertise in agriculture and Internet policy. But when he takes over the Judiciary Committee as expected next year, the promotion will put him at the center of bruising debates over immigration, criminal law and civil rights.

Texas Rep. Lamar Smith, the outgoing chairman, has been the committee’s top Republican for six years, the term limit the House GOP imposes on its chairmen and ranking members. Smith is expected to seek the chairmanship of the Committee on Science, Space and Technology. And while two other Judiciary Republicans, F. James Sensenbrenner Jr. of Wisconsin and Howard Coble of North Carolina, have more seniority than Goodlatte, it is the 20-year House veteran who has the inside track for the job.

Rep. Paul D. Ryan, the party’s vice presidential nominee, said as much during a speech at a private fundraiser in Roanoke, Va., in September, when he predicted that Goodlatte will be the panel’s chairman, The Roanoke Times reported. It wouldn’t be Goodlatte’s first chairmanship; he led the Agriculture Committee from 2003 to 2006.

Lawmakers and advocates who have worked with Smith and Goodlatte say the switch may give the panel a leader with a different style, but is unlikely to mark a major shift in its policy approach.

Both Smith and Goodlatte are social and fiscal conservatives who have opposed the Obama administration at nearly every turn, voting with their party at least 95 percent of the time in 2010 and 2011. Both voted to find Attorney General Eric H. Holder Jr. in contempt of Congress in June, the first time the nation’s top law enforcement official has faced that sanction. Both have worked to repeal the 2010 health care overhaul (PL 111-148, PL 111-152), which Goodlatte called a “monstrosity” after the Supreme Court largely upheld the law in June.

Smith and Goodlatte also are co-authors of a controversial Judiciary Committee measure (HR 3261) that aims to curb pirated content on the Internet. Smith set aside the bill after major Internet companies launched a backlash to it earlier this year, but Goodlatte — who currently serves as chairman of the Judiciary Subcommittee on Intellectual Property, Competition and the Internet — has indicated he may seek to revive the measure next year as chairman, in a less controversial form.

Judiciary Committee Democrats declined to speculate about what kind of a chairman Goodlatte would be and Goodlatte also declined to comment on his specific policy priorities on the panel.

“While it would be an honor to serve as chairman of the House Committee on the Judiciary, right now my primary focus is on the current election and maintaining the Republican majority in the House,” he said through a spokeswoman.

Hard Line on Immigrants

Goodlatte would be taking over the chairmanship either with Republican Mitt Romney as president or President Obama returning for a second term, either change certain to affect the panel’s work. Both presidential candidates have said they will pursue comprehensive immigration reform next year, and that process would begin in the Judiciary Committee.

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