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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.

The current chairman of the Subcommittee on Immigration Policy and Enforcement, Rep. Elton Gallegly, R-Calif., is retiring and his successor is still unclear. But Goodlatte, a former immigration attorney, would play a central role in the legislation regardless of who is chairman of the subcommittee. Goodlatte could present a significant obstacle for Obama’s immigration agenda if the president is re-elected.

Goodlatte has taken a hard line on immigration and voted for Smith’s bill (HR 2885) mandating all employers to use an online employment verification system known as E-Verify to prevent undocumented workers from applying for jobs. The Judiciary Committee approved the bill in September 2011 but the House has yet to take it up.

He criticized the Obama administration’s June 15 announcement that it would grant a reprieve to qualified young people brought to the country illegally as children. He introduced legislation (HR 704) that would do away with a diversity visa program that grants 55,000 green cards via lottery each year and instead voted in favor of a bill last month that would reserve those visas for foreign high-tech graduates of American universities. He also supports bills to grant more immigration enforcement authority to the states (HR 100) and to restrict the administration’s ability to grant deportation reprieves (HR 2497).

But Goodlatte’s style differs from Smith’s.Smith often adopted a hard-charging tone — frequently blasting press releases and demanding documents from administration officials. Goodlatte is likely to take a quieter approach, according to advocates and lobbyists. Smith is more likely than Goodlatte to “make waves,” said Mark Krikorian, executive director of the Center for Immigration Studies, a think tank that calls for tighter controls on immigration.

It remains to be seen whether Goodlatte will try to shepherd bills through the committee to expand pathways for legal citizenship even if that alienates Republican conservatives. Should he decide to compromise with the Democrats, he could find some cover from prominent Republicans such as former Florida Gov. Jeb Bush or former White House strategist Karl Rove who have both called on the GOP to soften its stance on immigration, said Ali Noorani, executive director of the National Immigration Forum, which advocates on behalf of immigrants.

“He’ll be able to point to pressure from conservatives as a reason to engage in a practical conversation,” he said. “He doesn’t have to just listen to the right-wing extremists when it comes to immigration.”

Dennis Cardoza, a California Democrat who worked with Goodlatte on agricultural and other issues before retiring earlier this year, praised the Republican as “very engaging and very willing to work on a bipartisan basis.”

But Cardoza said much will depend on House leaders. “I doubt he would strike out on his own on an issue like immigration without the support of leadership,” Cardoza said.

Civil Rights Questions

Debate over civil rights laws that have long been a focus of the Judiciary Committee could gain urgency on Goodlatte’s watch. Concern over voting rights is among such issues, especially after an election year in which Democrats and Republicans have battled over state laws requiring voters to present photo identification at the polls.

The Supreme Court is expected to decide by as early as next week whether it will take up a case examining the constitutionality of a key section of the Voting Rights Act, Section 5, which requires all or parts of 16 mainly southern states — including Goodlatte’s home state of Virginia — to receive “preclearance” from the Justice Department before they can change their voting laws. Goodlatte supported the 2006 reauthorization of the Voting Rights Act (PL 109-246), but civil rights groups say they are on high alert if the court makes any changes in what they see as an essential law needed to prevent discriminatory proposals in the states.

“There will need to be a response if, in any way, the Supreme Court would do anything that would weaken” Section 5, said Hilary Shelton, head of the Washington bureau of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People. “That [response] would land smack-dab in the middle of the Judiciary Committee.”

While Shelton called Goodlatte a “very thoughtful person,” he said the NAACP finds the Republicans’ voting record troubling. The organization gave Goodlatte an “F” on a scorecard of 20 bills it considered priorities in 2011 and Smith received the same mark. The key question will be Goodlatte’s willingness to work with Judiciary’s ranking Democrat John Conyers Jr., Mich., and other Democrats, Shelton said.

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