Conservative to lead GOP fight on court nomination

The top Republican in the Senate served notice on President Barack Obama Tuesday that the GOP won’t rubber stamp his choice to succeed the retiring Justice David Souter.

“The president is free to nominate whomever he likes,” Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell, R-Ky., said. “But picking judges based on his or her perceived sympathy for certain groups or individuals undermines the faith Americans have in our judicial system.”

McConnell’s Republicans are turning to a conservative Southerner as their point man on Obama’s nominee, signaling that they won’t shy away from a protracted fight despite risks of being cast as obstructionist.

Sen. Jeff Sessions’ ascension as the top Republican on the Senate Judiciary Committee comes more than 20 years after the panel rejected him for his own federal judgeship during the Reagan administration over concerns that he was hostile toward civil rights and was racially insensitive.

Oddly, Sessions, R-Ala., would replace Sen. Arlen Specter of Pennsylvania, a moderate who was one of just two Republicans in 1986 to oppose Sessions as a U.S. district court judge. Specter left the GOP last week to become a Democrat, creating the vacancy atop the committee just as Justice David Souter announced his retirement.

The choice of Sessions has excited conservatives who see him as a sharp lawyer with well-established legal views after a career as a prosecutor and Alabama attorney general.

Sheldon Goldman, a political scientist at the University of Massachusetts at Amherst, agreed that Sessions has a firm grasp on the issues but said making Sessions “the face of the party” for the Supreme Court nomination might not play well symbolically.

Goldman, who has written a book on judicial nominations, said Specter’s defection resulted in part from the perception that the GOP has moved too far right.

“And instead of responding to that by placing a moderate as the ranking Republican, they go for a very conservative Southern Republican who represents everything that has driven Specter and other moderate Republicans out of the party,” Goldman said.

Sessions is among the most conservative senators, taking hard-line positions on issues such as immigration and affirmative action.

His nomination as a judge two decades ago ran into trouble when civil rights groups complained that he had pursued politically motivated voter-fraud charges against black leaders as a U.S. attorney in south Alabama. Others came forward to say he had made racially insensitive comments, including calling groups like the NAACP “un-American” and agreeing with someone else’s statement that a white civil rights lawyer was “a disgrace to his race.”

Sessions said the comments were taken out of context or fabricated. He and his supporters argued that Democrats were using the allegations to reject Sessions over honest ideological differences.

Sessions, from Mobile, later was elected Alabama’s attorney general in 1995 before winning his Senate seat in 1996.

“It’s a thrill as someone who spent 15 years full-time in federal courts to have this opportunity,” he said.

He said any nominee is entitled to a fair hearing but also should expect “probing questions,” and he did not rule out a Republican-led filibuster under the right circumstances.

Meanwhile, Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid, D-Nev., said he doesn’t expect a Republican filibuster. Democrats already have nearly enough votes to defeat that.

Reid paid tribute to Obama’s past experience as a law professor Tuesday and said he’s confident he’ll send a very qualified nominee to the Senate.

He said on NBC’s “Today” show he hopes Obama goes outside the existing legal system and finds a former governor or senator, or someone who has “real life experiences.”

Reid said that “I feel comfortable that his choice will be as good as his Cabinet choices.”

Sessions, whose appointment was to be made official Tuesday, is technically fourth in line in seniority on Judiciary, but the others are either restricted under committee term limits or would have to give up top positions on other panels to take the Judiciary spot.

Under an arrangement worked out to prevent a turf battle, Sessions is expected to keep the Judiciary post only through the end of next year. Sen. Charles Grassley of Iowa would then take the top GOP post at Judiciary, and Sessions could become lead Republican on the Senate Budget Committee.

Copyright 2009 The Associated Press.