- The Washington Times - Wednesday, May 6, 2009

The top Republican in the Senate served notice on President Obama Tuesday that the Republican Party will not rubber-stamp his choice to succeed the retiring Justice David H. Souter.

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

Mr. McConnell’s Republicans are turning to a conservative Southerner as their point man on Mr. 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.

Mr. Sessions, of Alabama, replaces Sen. Arlen Specter, of Pennsylvania, a moderate who was one of just two Republicans in 1986 to oppose Mr. Sessions as a U.S. district court judge. Mr. Specter left the Republican Party last week to become a Democrat, creating the vacancy atop the committee just as Justice Souter announced his retirement.

The choice of Mr. 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.

“Any nominee must understand that the role of a justice is to be a neutral umpire of the law, calling the balls and strikes fairly while avoiding the temptation to make policy or legislate from the bench based on personal political views,” Mr. Sessions said in a statement Tuesday. “We must return to our original understanding that policy-making is reserved to the political branches and that courts serve the limited, but essential, role of disposing of cases and controversies based on a fair construction of the Constitution.”

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

Mr. Goldman, who has written a book on judicial nominations, said Mr. Specter’s defection resulted in part from the perception that the Republican Party 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,” Mr. Goldman said.

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

Mr. Reid paid tribute to Mr. 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 Mr. Obama goes outside the existing legal system and finds a former governor or senator, or someone who has “real life experiences.”

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