Washington (CNN) – The Ranking Republican on the Senate Judiciary Committee said Wednesday that racial or ethnic background can be a “positive factor” for the next Supreme Court nominee but it should not be a “primary” consideration.
Sen. Jeff Sessions, R-Alabama, met earlier in the day with President Obama and other Senate leaders at the White House to discuss replacing retiring Supreme Court Justice John Paul Stevens.
Sessions told CNN Chief National Correspondent John King that, during the meeting, Obama offered next to no hints about which individuals he was considering for his second high court pick since taking office.
But Sessions said the Senate has an important responsibility to act on the public’s behalf once Obama makes his decision.
“The president gets to appoint [the nominee]. We have to objectively evaluate [the choice],” Sessions said on CNN’s John King, USA. “It’s the only opportunity the American people have to have any real play in the process – when the elected representatives review the president’s choice. It’s a serious responsibility.”
Reacting to the fact that the Supreme Court has no one of Asian descent, the Republican senator said, “I don’t think the ethnicity or background of an individual should be the primary thing when they’re selected to the court.”
Sessions said a suitable candidate should have “good judgment” and “real experience in the legal world.”
“They don’t have to be a judge but I don’t think we want a politician,” the Alabama senator also said.
Asked whether he would consider diversity – a candidate’s race, religion, gender or sexual orientation – in determining whether someone is qualified to serve on the Supreme Court, Sessions said diversity “can be a factor, a positive factor.”
The senator told King that he did not object to a president trying to have diversity on the high court. But, he added, he did not think increasing the Supreme Court’s ethnic diversity meant a nominee was not accountable for his or her judicial philosophy, skill or background.
“And I don’t think that’s what any of the nominees would want. I think they would feel that they should be judged by the same rigorous standard anybody else would be judged by.”
Sessions, a lawyer, also weighed in on a controversial bill making its way through the Arizona legislature.
If enacted, the bill would require presidential candidates to provide documents, including birth certificates, proving their citizenship before their names can be added to the ballot in Arizona. The measure appears to be directed at the persistent, core belief of the “birther” movement which questions whether President Obama was born in the United States despite proof that he was born in Hawaii in 1961 (CNN and other news organizations have thoroughly debunked the rumors about the president's birthplace).
“What’s wrong with that?” Sessions responded when asked about the Arizona measure.
He added, “You’re supposed to be a citizen so I don’t know that it would be a problem to produce a birth certificate. If you didn’t have one, I guess you could explain why you didn’t. But I don’t see a problem with that.”
Asked whether measures like the one in Arizona presented a problem because the result might be different state-by-state requirements, Sessions said the issue was “an interesting legal question.”
“I don’t know if the states have the authority to do that or not,” the Republican said.
The White House slammed the Arizona bill earlier Wednesday, saying, “This is a question that has been answered exhaustively.”
If it became law, the Arizona bill would also likely be challenged in court on the grounds that it is the federal government and not the states that have the authority to set the requirements for being president.
–CNN's Ed Henry and Shannon Travis contributed to this report.