Republicans are set to name conservative Sen. Jeff Sessions
as the leader of their side on the likely coming debate when
President Barack Obama nominates a Supreme Court justice.
Sessions' appointment is a signal that the party will not shy
away from a protracted fight despite risks of being cast as
The Alabama senator's ascension as the top Republican on the
Judiciary Committee comes more than 20 years after the same
committee rejected him for a federal judgeship after
President Ronald Reagan nominated him. The argument of the
anti-Sessions senators was that he was hostile toward civil
rights and was insensitive on questions of race.
Ironically, Sessions would replace Sen. Arlen Specter of
Pennsylvania, a moderate who was one of just two Republicans
in 1986 to oppose Sessions as a US district court judge.
Specter left the party last week to become a Democrat,
creating the vacancy atop the committee just as Supreme Court
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
Goldman, who has written a book on judicial nominations, said
Specter's defection resulted in part from the perception that
the Republican Party has moved too far to the right.
"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
Sessions is among the most conservative senators, taking
hard-line positions on issues such as immigration.
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 US attorney in south Alabama.
Others came forward to say he had made racially insensitive
comments, including calling groups like the National
Association for the Advancement of Coloured People
"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
Sessions 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
under the right circumstances a Republican-led filibuster, a
method of uninterrupted debate designed to delay or kill
legislation or, in this case, a nomination.
Sessions, whose appointment was being made official on
Tuesday, is technically fourth in line in seniority on the
committee, 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.