Leahy: New Justice to Be Confirmed by August

Posted April 11, 2010 at 10:25am

The chairman of the Senate Judiciary Committee predicted Sunday that a new Supreme Court justice would be confirmed before Senators leave town for the August recess.

Sen. Patrick Leahy (D-Vt.) said he had already spoken with President Barack Obama about several possible successors to retiring Justice John Paul Stevens and that he expected the president would announce his pick “very soon.” Stevens, 89, announced Friday that he plans to retire from the court later this year.

“I think we’re going to hear it soon enough so we can wrap this up this summer,” Leahy said on NBC’s “Meet the Press,” adding that he was confident Stevens’ replacement would be in place by the start of the high court’s fall term.

“There’s no question,” said Leahy, whose panel will vet the nominee. “It would be irresponsible to do otherwise.”

How quickly Democrats could confirm Obama’s selection will hinge largely on the degree of cooperation they get from Republicans, who are already signaling that they could mount a stiffer resistance to this nominee than they did to Obama’s first high court pick, Sonia Sotomayor.

Although both Democrats and Republicans have said a filibuster of Stevens’ replacement nominee is unlikely, GOP Senators on Sunday refused to take the option off the table, at least until a nominee is announced. Republicans have sent a strong message that they want Obama to nominate a moderate to replace Stevens and would not welcome any candidate they believe to be an ideologue.

Judiciary ranking member Jeff Sessions (R-Ala.) pledged that Obama’s nominee would receive a fair hearing in committee, but would not rule out a filibuster.

“If the nominee is one who is so activist … then I think every power should be utilized to protect the Constitution,” he said.

Leahy said Obama had “made it very clear he is not looking for somebody who will represent just Democrats or just Republicans, but to represent Americans,” and criticized the suggestion of a filibuster.

“That’s a lazy person’s way out. The American people pay us and elect us to vote ‘yes’ or ‘no’ — not to vote ‘maybe,'” he said.

Speaking on ABC’s “This Week,” Senate Minority Whip Jon Kyl (R-Ariz.) said he didn’t believe the filibuster was likely to be employed unless there is “an extraordinary circumstance.” Kyl said that was the standard set by the “gang of 14” in 2005, the bipartisan group of Senators who broke an impasse over then-President George W. Bush’s stalled judicial nominees.

“If the president is not going to take it off the table, then I’m not going to take it off table, but think it can be avoided,” Kyl said of the filibuster.

Kyl said he would judge the nominee based on how he or she would approach cases; he wants to ensure the candidate would come to the bench without any “preconceived notions of how a case should be decided.” Kyl said it is critical that any future justice approach decisions impartially, and doesn’t come to the job with “an ideological position.”

Senate Democratic Conference Vice Chairman Charles Schumer (N.Y.), who sits on the Judiciary Committee, said he, too, wants a “mainstream” jurist who approaches the law fairly.

“What you want is someone who will follow the law, not make the law,” Schumer said.

Schumer said he wants a candidate who displays “legal excellence” and has the fortitude to influence a five-justice majority on the court. He said Chief Justice John Roberts has moved the court much “further to the right” than anyone could have predicted.

Still, Schumer predicted that Obama would not select an ideologue for the job.

“I think it’s just about a certainty that the president will nominate someone in the mainstream,” Schumer said.

Asked on “Fox News Sunday” what type of nominee he would consider filibustering, GOP Conference Chairman Lamar Alexander (Tenn.) said, “It’s premature to talk about that before we even have a nominee.”

But, Alexander added, “If the president picks someone from the fringe instead of someone from the middle or if he picks someone who applies heir feelings instead of applying the law, then that might be an extraordinary case where I can’t vote for that nominee.”

Alexander was one of nine Republicans who supported Sotomayor for the high court last year.

Also appearing on “Fox News Sunday,” Sen. Joe Lieberman (ID-Conn.) said he was “encouraged” by the idea that Obama could pick someone who is not a sitting judge, noting that all of the other eight justices came to the high court from appellate court judgeships. In part because of the upcoming midterm elections, Lieberman predicted that Obama would choose a consensus nominee.

“I would expect here that to avoid a conflict, the threat of a filibuster, a real knock-down, drag-out battle in an election year, that President Obama may also want to nominate a justice who has the kind of capability that he will feel comfortable with but will not have the kind of record, either on the court or off, that will provoke a filibuster,” he said.

Several names have already been floated as possible contenders for Stevens’ seat. Topping the list are Solicitor General Elena Kagan and federal appellate Judges Diane Wood and Merrick Garland and Homeland Security Secretary Janet Napolitano.

Leahy said he also thought a nominee outside the “judicial monastery” would add some valuable diversity to the court.

“I know he has several extraordinarily good names in front of him, any one of whom would make a good justice of the Supreme Court,” he said.