Ron Edmonds  /  AP file
Judge Edith Brown Clement with President Bush after she was nominated to the Fifth Circuit Court of Appeals.
By Tom Curry National affairs writer
msnbc.com
updated 7/19/2005 5:53:15 PM ET 2005-07-19T21:53:15

With expectation on Capitol Hill building Tuesday over President Bush’s choice to fill the seat of retiring Justice Sandra Day O’Connor, there was some doubt over the woman who early in the day appeared to be the front-running contender, Judge Edith Clement of the Fifth Circuit Court of Appeals.

The president will speak at 9 p.m. ET to nationwide television audience with his nominee by his side.

One key advisor to the Bush administration warned Tuesday afternoon that no one should misjudge Bush’s ability to pull off the unexpected.

“Never underestimate this president's capacity for surprising people,” said Leonard Leo, the powerful and publicity-shy judicial selection guru for the conservative Federalist Society.

Leo huddled Tuesday afternoon with Senate GOP staffers. Asked for his assessment of Clement, Leo had complimentary things to say about her,

“She’s a very good judge. She’s extremely well respected by her colleagues.”

But he warned that reporters should not “get too far out in front” in assuming that she would be the nominee.

Bush loves surprises
Mulling a complete surprise pick, Sen. Trent Lott, R-Miss., said, “I think he (Bush) would love to do that. He might just come completely off the wall and come with (Texas Sen.) John Cornyn or (Fifth Circuit Judge) Rhesa Barksdale.” 

Clement, 57, served as federal district court (trial) judge for ten years before President Bush appointed her to the appeals court in 2001. Prior to that, she practiced law in New Orleans.

Compared to two other women who are rumored to be in the running, Harvard Law Professor Mary Ann Glendon and Fifth Circuit Judge Edith Jones, Clement does not have a record of making outspoken remarks criticizing the Supreme Court’s 1973 Roe v. Wade decision legalizing abortion.

One conservative advocate, Manuel Miranda, a former aide to Majority Leader Bill Frist who is now head of a group called the Third Branch Conference, said right-wing groups are unenthusiastic about Clement because her record as a judge does not give them sufficient assurance that she is a conservative.

“No one in Washington is pushing for her,” Miranda said. “She suffers from the fact that she is not Janice Rogers Brown or Priscilla Owen,” more outspoken and combative conservative appeals court judges recently confirmed by the Senate.

Hope for 'cathartic release'
“There had been some hope there’d be a cathartic release of applause” with the nomination of a renowned, stellar conservative, he said.

With Clement, Miranda said, it would be a case of “people getting behind the president but not necessarily getting behind his nominee.”

But, he added, his conservative groups would support Clement if in fact she turns out to be Bush’s pick.

There is some concern, conservatives feel, that Clement might end up as another David Souter, a nominee with a scant record who was thought to be conservative but turned out to be a liberal.

Vitter vouches for Clement
Cast in the leading role of vouching for Clement if Bush does select her for the high court, is Louisiana freshman Republican Sen. David Vitter.

“I’ve known her for a long time because we were both practicing lawyers in New Orleans,” said Vitter. “I’ve gotten to know her a lot better in the last five or six years since I’ve been in Congress.”

Asked if Clement was conservative in the mold of Justices Antonin Scalia and Clarence Thomas, Vitter replied, “I do think she has a solid mainstream conservative judicial philosophy.”

Describing her personality, Vitter said, “She’s a very smart, capable person…. Very professional, very straightforward, runs a very efficient court. Lawyers appreciate that fact.”

Vitter said Clement’s non-controversial record would help her win confirmation. “She hasn’t been the subject of disputed debate already and she has a very significant, substantial record, but I don’t think she has a record that’s going to provoke that sort of heated battle from the extremes,” he added.

Not 'inflammatory'
A Bush choice of Clement would signal that “he is looking for a conservative who is experienced but not one who has been inflammatory in her conduct,” said Lott.

He called her “an OK choice,” in a tone that implied a less than ecstatic endorsement.

But Lott also said, “She may not be boisterous about her position, but I think we can trust her.”

Vitter said some of the anti-abortion groups had called him to seek more information about Clement. “I said I’ve never talked with her directly about abortion, but I feel very comfortable with her judicial philosophy,” Vitter told reporters.

“The main thing I’m looking for is a very solid judicial conservative — meaning somebody who is not going to be an activist, but who’s going to look at the law as written, in my opinion she is exactly that.”

Vitter said he had suggested her name to Bush when he, Sen. Thad Cochran, R-Miss., and others had dinner with him at the White House the night before O’Connor’s announcement that she was stepping down.

The only remaining questions, assuming Bush selects Clement, are:

  • Is there anything lurking in her record that would derail her nomination?
  • Will Democrats decide to filibuster her nomination?

Although not threatening a filibuster, Sen. Patrick Leahy, D-VT., the senior Democrat on the Judiciary Committee, complained Tuesday afternoon that Bush had not consulted with Democratic senators sufficiently before making his final choice.

“There has been some reaching out to Democrats but certainly not to the extent that we saw either in Reagan administration or the Clinton administration,” Leahy said.

But a member of the bipartisan group of 14 senators who agreed to not resort to filibusters except in “extraordinary circumstances,” Sen. Ben Nelson, D-Neb., said “I’m not aware of any real criticism of the president’s reaching out.”

Most senators were unwilling to talk about Clement or any other potential nominee until after the president announced his choice at 9 p.m.

© 2013 msnbc.com Reprints

Discuss:

Discussion comments

,

Most active discussions

  1. votes comments
  2. votes comments
  3. votes comments
  4. votes comments