Senate Gears Up for Possible Court Battle

The retirement of Justice Sandra Day O'Connor has strong reverberations in the Senate, which will hold hearings — likely to be contentious — on her successor.

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And on to the US Senate, which will have to confirm the woman or man President Bush picks to replace Sandra Day O'Connor. As we've heard, a major battle is expected. The Senate has already heard bitter arguments over the use of filibusters to block lower-court nominees. The coming Supreme Court fight will put the bipartisan truce on judicial nominees forged by 14 senators to the test. Here's NPR's David Welna.

DAVID WELNA reporting:

For weeks Senate Democrats have been complaining that when it comes to judicial nominees, President Bush has ignored the advice part of the Senate's constitutional charge to advise and consent on nominations. But the president recently promised he will consult with the Senate on selecting a Supreme Court nominee, a promise he repeated this morning.

President GEORGE W. BUSH: The nation also deserves a dignified process of confirmation in the United States Senate, characterized by fair treatment, a fair hearing and a fair vote.

WELNA: On the Senate floor, Republican Majority Leader Bill Frist praised O'Connor, calling her fair, independent, unbiased and committed to equal justice under the law.

Senator BILL FRIST (Republican, Tennessee; Majority Leader): I'm confident the president will select a qualified replacement justice who embodies these qualities. And I look forward to working with my colleagues to ensure a fair confirmation process in the Senate that will ensure the Supreme Court is at full strength to start its next term in October.

WELNA: Then at a Senate news conference, Judiciary Committee Chairman Arlen Specter was asked if hearings on the yet-to-be-named nominee could begin as early as the Senate's August recess.

Senator ARLEN SPECTER (Republican, Pennsylvania; Judiciary Committee Chair): I'm not going to prejudge whether we're going to have August hearings or not. I'm available. I've been grounded. But we have had traditionally the hearings in September and have met the first-Monday-in-October date.

WELNA: But two hours later, New York Democrat Charles Schumer, who's also on the Judiciary Committee, questioned the need to find a replacement for O'Connor by early October.

Senator CHARLES SCHUMER (Democrat, New York): The fact that Sandra Day O'Connor has said she will stay on the bench until a new nominee is confirmed means that there isn't a rush, and it's better to do it right than do it quickly.

WELNA: Schumer called on President Bush to hold a summit with Senate leaders and discuss names of possible Supreme Court nominees with them.

Sen. SCHUMER: He has said he won't make a nomination until he gets back from Europe. It would be a shame if the day he got back he announces a name without real, face-to-face, back-and-forth consultation.

WELNA: And Virginia Republican John Warner, who led the group of 14 that averted a showdown over filibusters, had some advice of his own for the president.

Senator JOHN WARNER (Republican, Virginia): This nomination of the first Supreme Court justice by this distinguished president gives him an opportunity to be a uniter, not a divider.

WELNA: Like Warner, Massachusetts Democrat Edward Kennedy called on President Bush to nominate a consensus candidate.

Senator EDWARD KENNEDY (Democrat, Massachusetts): If the president abuses his power and nominates someone who threatens to roll back the rights and freedoms of the American people, then the American people will insist that we oppose that nominee, and we intend to do so.

WELNA: Kennedy did not use the word `filibuster,' but Kansas Republican Sam Brownback insisted that a simple majority should confirm the next Supreme Court justice.

Senator SAM BROWNBACK (Republican, Kansas): But it will be a process of 51 votes and not 60 votes, that there will not be a filibuster for this Supreme Court nominee position. It should not be. It is not an extraordinary circumstance.

WELNA: In the Gang of 14's agreement, judicial filibusters would be tolerated only under extraordinary circumstances. Democratic Whip Dick Durbin today did not rule out such an option.

Senator RICHARD DURBIN (Democrat, Illinois; Minority Whip): I hope we can avoid any possibility of a filibuster. Filibusters on judicial nominees in the Bush administration have been extremely rare. When it comes to the Supreme Court, it's the last thing we want to turn to.

WELNA: Democrats say the best way to avoid a filibustered nomination is to find a mainstream nominee like O'Connor. David Welna, NPR News, the Capitol.

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