Sessions Is in the Spotlight

Posted May 5, 2009 at 6:35pm

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.

[IMGCAP(1)]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.

“I respect Jeff Sessions [but] he would be insulted if someone called him a moderate,— Sen. Claire McCaskill (D-Mo.) said.

“So I’m not sure as we work on nominations to the Supreme Court that it’s going to allow this to be as bipartisan as we hope this would be,— she added.

A senior Democratic leadership aide said that while Majority Leader Harry Reid (Nev.) and other Democratic leaders are hoping for a cooperative process, they expect partisan fireworks.

“Jeff Sessions has an opportunity to be a statesman here. It is our hope that he follows that path and not the one of right-wing partisanship,— the aide said.

Democrats said they were preparing for a deluge of conservative attacks on the nominee.

But with Obama’s popularity at extremely high levels and the public focused on the economy, Democrats said they were unlikely to ramp up a major messaging campaign, especially since the nominee will be replacing a liberal justice and not one of the swing judges, particularly Justice Anthony Kennedy.

“We’re not going to war room this or anything like we would if it was Kennedy,— the senior Democratic aide said.

Rather, Democrats said they are hoping that the administration’s pick will be well vetted and that by taking the high road in the message fight with Republicans, they will come out of the battle looking more bipartisan than political.

“The Republicans will blister this person— regardless of whom Obama chooses, this aide argued, adding that “in the end, it will rile up their conservative base … but once again Obama will look like the adult in the room.—

At the White House, Press Secretary Robert Gibbs said Tuesday that Obama’s pick will not be announced this week. But Gibbs suggested a potentially fast timetable, not ruling out an announcement next week.

The White House has been considering whom Obama would appoint to the court since the presidential transition period between Election Day and the inauguration. White House officials have suggested Obama is considering a diverse group of candidates.

Meanwhile, conservatives are busy building a public relations campaign that they hope will help frame the confirmation process to their advantage and said they are hoping Senate Republicans will not shy away from a fight over basic philosophical questions.

“There are really legitimate questions that shouldn’t be glossed over,— Americans United for Life President Charmaine Yoest said Tuesday.

Yoest added that her organization and other conservative groups are hoping to use the weeks before confirmation hearings begin to cast the debate around the broader question of judicial power, which conservatives hope will allow them to make some headway in attacking the nominee’s stance on issues like abortion.

“In terms of framing this nomination, we think it’s key to keep raising the issue of judicial power,— Yoest said, explaining that it is “important to raise that issue to the surface and make sure the public is focused on that.—

Yoest, who said she was “very happy— with the selection of Sessions as the top Republican on the Judiciary Committee, said she hoped he and other Republicans would push the eventual nominee on issues of concern to conservatives.

“You can question a nominee very carefully without crossing the line into disrespect,— she said.

But most Republicans were still trying to strike a balance between staking out a position in opposition to the administration’s pick and bipartisan cooperation.

Sen. Orrin Hatch (R-Utah), who spoke with Obama about the nomination process Monday, said that while the president should be given deference in his selection, that accommodation by Republicans will only go so far.

“The president should be given every deference as far as I’m concerned. But if they put up a nominee who doesn’t understand a judicial philosophy that judges aren’t supposed to run the country … then yeah, there’d be a big fight,— Hatch said.

Keith Koffler and Jessica Brady contributed to this report.

Correction: May 6, 2009

The article incorrectly stated that Sen. Jeff Sessions (R-Ala.) is a former judge. Sessions served as a U.S. attorney and as Alabama attorney general but never as a judge. His nomination to the federal bench was defeated in the Senate Judiciary Committee in 1986.