May 3rd, 2009
02:12 PM ET
14 years ago

Partisan lines harden over looming Obama court pick

WASHINGTON (CNN) - Leading Democrats and Republicans parted ways on the issue of President Barack Obama's looming Supreme Court pick Sunday, setting the stage for a potentially divisive Senate confirmation fight.

Republicans charged that Obama's stated desire to pick someone with "empathy and understanding" masked an intention to pick a judicial activist who would try to pull the high court significantly to the left. Democrats dismissed the GOP charge, arguing that Obama - a former constitutional law professor - would tap a candidate committed to equal justice and not use a high court opening to pursue a partisan political agenda.

Obama is currently considering possible replacements for Justice David Souter, who announced his intention Friday to retire at the end the Supreme Court's current term this summer. Souter, 69, is generally considered to be a member of the court's more liberal bloc.

The vacancy gives Obama his first Supreme Court appointment, and the first since President George W. Bush's picks of Chief Justice John Roberts in 2005 and Justice Samuel Alito in 2006. And it appears likely to underscore the ideological chasm between the two parties on the question of judicial philosophy.

"The key thing and the place where I think we draw the line is, is this an individual who will follow the Constitution and the law, or is this an individual who believes in making the law?" former Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney said on CNN's "State of the Union."

"If it's the latter, I think we should stand up and scream loud and hard," said Romney, a Republican who ran unsuccessfully for president in 2008.

Utah Sen. Orrin Hatch, a Republican, worried on ABC's "This Week" that Obama had indicated "that politics, preferences, personal preferences and feelings might take the place of being impartial and deciding cases based upon the law, not upon politics."

Hatch led the Senate Judiciary Committee when former President Bill Clinton nominated Ruth Bader Ginsberg and Stephen Breyer to the high court. He pointed to Obama's comments at the White House Friday, when the president stated he will "seek someone who understands that justice isn't about some abstract legal theory or footnote in a casebook."

"I view that quality of empathy, of understanding and identifying with people's hopes and struggles, as an essential ingredient for arriving at just decisions and outcomes," Obama said.

Hatch argued that words such as "empathy" are "code words for an activist judge, who is going to ... be partisan on the bench."

Vermont Sen. Patrick Leahy, D-Vermont, also on "This Week," responded that Obama "doesn't need to use code words. He speaks very plainly and very directly."

Obama "understands the court probably better than certainly any president in my lifetime," Leahy said. "And I know some of the names he's thinking of. They are all going to be extremely good, good people."

Obama is rumored to be considering, among others, federal appeals court Judges Sonia Sotomayor and Diane Wood, Solicitor General Elena Kagan, Michigan Gov. Jennifer Granholm and Massachusetts Gov. Deval Patrick.

Sen. John Ensign, R-Nevada, argued on "Fox News Sunday" that Obama should have no litmus tests in choosing a nominee, particularly on the hot-button abortion issue.

"If people have actually taken positions, I think that that in and of itself prejudices them in the future," he said.

Granholm and Patrick ran for office as staunch defenders of abortion rights. Other potential choices have made public statements indicating a similar position. But Sen. Dick Durbin, D-Illinois, said it would be "hard to imagine someone, after 30 or 40 years of experience in the law, who hasn't taken a position on some issue."

"That's going to happen. ... We just need to make certain that person is using sound reasoning to reach that position and that they're fair in the way they approach it," Durbin told Fox.

Most Republicans seemed to accept that Obama would not choose a nominee inclined to overturn Roe vs. Wade, the 1973 ruling establishing a constitutional right to abortion.

"I have no illusions about President Obama appointing a conservative like Alito or Roberts and so forth," Sen. Richard Shelby, R-Alabama, told CNN.

While Republicans and Democrats largely split on questions of ideology, there was some agreement on the desire to bring more gender and racial diversity to the high court.

"It would be my hope that he would choose someone with diversity," Sen. Arlen Specter, D-Pennsylvania, said on NBC's Meet the Press.

"Women are underrepresented on the court. We (also) don't have a Hispanic. African-Americans are underrepresented."

Specter, a former Judiciary Committee chairman, also said that the president may want to break with recent tradition by choosing someone not currently serving on the federal bench.

"All of the justices now have been on the circuit courts of appeals and they have lives and experiences that are all very similar. ... It would be good to get people who know something besides wearing a black robe," Specter said.

Filed under: State of the Union
soundoff (38 Responses)
  1. Skeeve

    Frankly, at this point republicans should simply be ignored. It is pretty obvious that Obama can select a religious fundamentalist for the supreme court tomorrow and republicans will still be against this nomination on general principle. So the only way of dealing with republicans at the moment is simply to ignore them . When this party become more constructive and political consultation stop being complete waste of time then their opinion will worth something, but not now

    May 3, 2009 03:31 pm at 3:31 pm |
  2. J S Ragman

    Did our recent Clown President take any of the concerns of the Democratic Party under consideration when he chose Alito and Roberts? Absolutely not, because he was the decider. I hope the idiots on the right make this into on on three ring circus. It can only embolden the Dems and make the Repugs look even more primitive and less relevent to the current century in which we live.

    May 3, 2009 03:50 pm at 3:50 pm |
  3. HEIDI

    The President should be looking for the Supreme Court replacement to be able to have empathy, you can understand a persons plight without having to walk in their shoes. I feel that it helps any person who is in a position of leadership to make good and sound decisions.

    May 3, 2009 03:51 pm at 3:51 pm |
  4. Mark, B'ham., Al.

    The Liberal members of the Supreme Court are so far left that moderate conservatives would have to be considered ultra conservative.

    May 3, 2009 03:53 pm at 3:53 pm |
  5. John

    I sincerely hope that Obama picks an extreme left wing pro choice anti gun nutcase to the court if anything just to equal out the nazi wingnuts that Bush put in with Roberts and Alito. I sincerely hope that 2 or 3 more Justices go out before 2012 preferably Thomas Scalia and Kennedy so we can put this court back where it belongs. Out of the hands of bible thumping idiots.

    May 3, 2009 03:54 pm at 3:54 pm |
  6. ron

    Does anyone really expect the Republicans to NOT put up a fight against his picks? Considdering all his cabinet appointments, I can't see any possiblity that he'll choose anyone even SLIGHTLY moderate.

    May 3, 2009 03:56 pm at 3:56 pm |
  7. ron

    Oh yeah, and the nominee should be a female, minority little person, JUST TO BE FAIR.

    May 3, 2009 03:58 pm at 3:58 pm |
  8. ron

    MOST of the whining I see and hear these days is STILL from the liberals.

    May 3, 2009 04:01 pm at 4:01 pm |
  9. nick

    The party of "NO" at it´s worst.... We are against whomever the President picks. We want him to "FAIL"...

    May 3, 2009 04:06 pm at 4:06 pm |
  10. Pragmatic

    "Hatch argued that words such as "empathy" are "code words for an activist judge, who is going to … be partisan on the bench."

    Didn't mind activist judges putting Bush in office. Basically an "activist judge" is any judge you disagree with... Code words? Is Hatch just a little paranoid?

    What people object to is the fact that Bush felt free to appoint two far right judges: and it shows in their opinions. But President Obama is not supposed to appoint anyone less conservative.

    People object to the fact that the Republicans are already writing and speaking against someone who has not even been asked, much less announced. At this point, if Barry Goldwater appeared, alive and ready to serve, the GOP would still blindly denounce him – just because Obama selected him. They've already made up their narrow minds – why bother with them?

    The hypocrisy wears mighty, mighty thin.

    May 3, 2009 04:08 pm at 4:08 pm |
  11. Barbara Campbell

    What's happening to the Republican party? Their entire agenda seems to be to mindlessly oppose whatever President Obama tries to accomplish. Obama hasn't even nominated Souter's replacement yet, but already the neocons are hysterical about it.

    We can assume that Obama will nominate a liberal – someone who represents the American people instead of the corporate elite – but since Souter has been left-leaning, a liberal replacement won't change the balance on the Supreme Court.

    Republicans all seem to think that the squeaky wheel gets oiled. They're failing to see that when it's squeaky AND malfunctioning, it gets replaced.

    May 3, 2009 04:09 pm at 4:09 pm |
  12. I used to like CNN but not anymore!

    I love how the GOP gets all worried about the Democrats doing something that the GOP got away with doing the past 8 years! Which was appointing conservative Bush cronies to the Supreme Court for political reasons as well as the firing of federal prosecutors based on political affiliation! What a bunch of hypocritical slime balls! I don't think it could possibly be any more obvious!

    May 3, 2009 04:50 pm at 4:50 pm |
  13. Ambrose Smith, Borrego Springs, California

    Hmmmm. Maybe Obama can make a careful and educated choice like Bush and choose...........HARRIET MIERS??????????

    Ha ha! Even the GOP knew Bush blew it with that stinker of a choice!

    Remember that fiasco?

    May 3, 2009 04:52 pm at 4:52 pm |
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