In his quest for the Republican presidential nomination, Arizona Sen. John McCain courted Thursday the group that vets conservative judicial nominees, the Federalist Society.
The powerful lawyers’ group, which is holding its annual convention in Washington this weekend, has spawned such conservative nominees of President Bush as appeals court Judge William Pryor and Supreme Court Justice Samuel Alito.
The group is staging a tribute to Justice Antonin Scalia Thursday night, an event at which Alito will speak.
Polite, not overwhelming response
In his speech to a packed ballroom at a Washington hotel, McCain assured the group that despite last week’s sobering election returns for Republicans, “the election was not an affirmation of the other party’s program. Try as hard as I could, I couldn’t find much evidence that my Democratic friends were offering anything that resembled a coherent platform.”
McCain asserted that “the majority of Americas still consider themselves conservatives, or right of center.”
He spoke of the importance of judges who would strictly interpret the Constitution.
“They should be people who respect the limited scope afforded federal judges under the Constitution,” he said.
The reaction from the Federalists was polite, but not overwhelming. Last year another GOP presidential contender, Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney, got a similarly friendly reception when he addressed the group.
McCain 'A problem among conservatives'
Some social conservatives are wary of McCain because he has never shared their enthusiasm for such causes as banning same-sex marriage.
One Republican active in judicial confirmation politics, who spoke on condition of anonymity, said of McCain the day before the speech: “He’s regarded as a problem among conservatives on several levels.”
McCain was a leader of the bipartisan Gang of 14, a group of senators who averted a vote on changing Senate rules to abolish filibusters of judicial nominees.
Several Bush nominees were filibustered and blocked in 2002 and 2003, including Miguel Estrada.
During the Estrada battle, the Republican activist said, “McCain was a whiner. He kept saying, ‘why are we having these repeated votes (to try to stop the filibuster)?’ He was obtuse; he didn’t get why the issue was important.”
Defending conservative credentials
This source called McCain’s decision to speak to the Federalists “an attempt to improve his credibility” with conservatives and “a chance to demonstrate his commitment to and knowledge of the judges issue.”
McCain explicitly addressed his role as a leader of the Gang of 14, saying he was “proud of my role persuading my fellow Republican senators to respect the limits of our own power and not abolish the (judicial) filibuster rule.”
He said he and other GOP senators had focused “on assuring that a high percentage of the president’s nominees have been confirmed. These judges and justices will interpret our Constitution as our founders intended it.”
Commitment to originalism
McCain reminded the group that he had supported the nomination even of very conservative judges such as Pryor and Janice Rogers Brown.
He lavished praise on Chief Justice John Roberts and Alito who, he said, “were serving with such distinction on our Supreme Court.”
Carter Snead, a Federalist Society member who is a law professor at Notre Dame University and former counsel to President Bush’s Council on Bioethics, praised McCain’s speech saying, “I was astonished by how far he was willing to go in broaching the subject of the kinds of judges that he admires. He essentially committed himself to originalism: he used the phrase ‘the original intent’ of the statute or Constitution. He sent a clear message that he shares President Bush’s view of the judiciary. I was surprised by how forthcoming he was.”
Another positive, but more guarded review came from first-year Harvard Law student Claudio Simpkins. “It was a very good speech, but it’s still very early for him and he’s not trying to give away too much substance,” Simpkins said.
“I question how far he would go to see more judges confirmed,” he added. “Look at what he said about the Gang of 14…. He wasn’t willing to go the full 110 percent” to see conservative nominees get Senate confirmation.”
Yet to be seen: how vigorously McCain – and other GOP senators – will fight to get Bush’s judicial nominees confirmed now that the Democrats control the Senate.