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Key GOP senator warns Bush on judicial choices

The Republican expected to chair the Senate Judiciary Committee next year warned President Bush against naming Supreme Court nominees against abortion rights or  who are otherwise too conservative to win confirmation.
Specter: "I would expect the president to be mindful of the considerations which I am mentioning.”H. Rumph Jr. / AP file
/ Source: The Associated Press

The Republican expected to chair the Senate Judiciary Committee next year bluntly warned newly re-elected President Bush against putting forth Supreme Court nominees who would seek to overturn abortion rights or are otherwise too conservative to win confirmation.

Sen. Arlen Specter, fresh from winning a fifth term in Pennsylvania, also said Wednesday that the current Supreme Court now lacks legal “giants” on the bench.

“When you talk about judges who would change the right of a woman to choose, overturn Roe v. Wade, I think that is unlikely,” Specter said, referring to the landmark 1973 Supreme Court decision legalizing abortion.

“The president is well aware of what happened, when a number of his nominees were sent up, with the filibuster,” Specter added, referring to Senate Democrats’ success over the past four years in blocking the confirmation of many of Bush’s conservative judicial picks. “... And I would expect the president to be mindful of the considerations which I am mentioning.”

With at least three Supreme Court justices rumored to be eyeing retirement, including ailing Chief Justice William Rehnquist, Specter would have broad authority to reshape the nation’s highest court. He would have wide latitude to schedule hearings, call for votes and make the process as easy or as hard as he wants.

Frist sees easier time
Senate Majority Leader Bill Frist, R-Tenn., expressed confidence Wednesday that Bush will have more success his second term in winning the confirmation of his judicial nominees.

“I’m very confident that now we’ve gone from 51 seats to 55 seats, we will be able to overturn this what has become customary filibuster of judicial nominees,” Frist said.

Legal scholar Dennis Hutchinson said Specter’s message to the White House appears to be “a way of asserting his authority” as he prepares to chair the Judiciary Committee when Sen. Orrin Hatch, R-Utah, is term-limited from keeping the post next year.

“What he may be trying to do is say, ’Don’t just think that I’m going to process what you send through. I have standards, I’m going to take an independent look, you have to deal with me,”’ said Hutchinson, a law professor at the University of Chicago.

Another GOP senator wary
When asked Wednesday about Specter’s impending chairmanship, another Republican on the panel, Sen. John Cornyn of Texas, did not offer a ringing endorsement.

“We’ll have to see where he stands,” said Cornyn, a close friend of Bush who worked to get all of the president’s nominees through the Senate. “I’m hoping that he will stand behind the president’s nominees. I’m intending to sit down and discuss with him how things are going to work. We want to know what he’s going do and how things are going to work.”

While Specter is a loyal Republican — Bush endorsed him in a tight Pennsylvania GOP primary — he routinely crosses party lines to pass legislation and counts a Democrat, Sen. Joseph Biden of Delaware, as one of his closest friends.

A self-proclaimed moderate, he helped kill President Reagan’s nomination of Robert Bork to the Supreme Court and of Jeff Sessions to a federal judgeship. Specter called both nominees too extreme on civil rights issues. Sessions later became a Republican senator from Alabama and now sits on the Judiciary Committee with Specter.

Despite a bruising challenge from conservatives this year in Pennsylvania’s GOP primary, Specter won re-election Tuesday by an 11-point margin by appealing to moderate Republicans and ticket-splitting Democrats, even as Pennsylvania chose Democrat John Kerry over Bush.

More on Supreme Court
A former district attorney, Specter also bemoaned what he called the lack of any current justices comparable to legal heavyweights like Oliver Wendell Holmes, Louis Brandeis, Benjamin Cardozo and Thurgood Marshall, “who were giants of the Supreme Court.”

“With all due respect to the (current) U.S. Supreme Court, we don’t have one,” he said.

Though he refused to describe the political leanings of the high court, Specter said he “would characterize myself as moderate; I’m in the political swim. I would look for justices who would interpret the Constitution, as Cardozo has said, reflecting the values of the people.”