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Senators Expect Obama’s Supreme Court Nominee ‘Soon’

May 13, 2009 at 12:00 AM EDT
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President Barack Obama met Wednesday with key senators to discuss the selection of a Supreme Court nominee to succeed retiring Justice David Souter. Ray Suarez speaks with representatives from three groups trying to influence his nomination.

JIM LEHRER: And now another take on the search for a new Supreme Court justice. Ray Suarez has that.

RAY SUAREZ: President Obama today met with a group of Democratic and Republican senators to discuss many of the issues Eric Holder mentioned in Gwen’s interview.

Joining Mr. Obama at the White House were Democratic leader Harry Reid, Republican leader Mitch McConnell, Judiciary Committee Chair Patrick Leahy and ranking member Jeff Sessions.

And as Mr. Obama’s selection process moves forward, public interest groups around the country have been bombarding the White House with their advice and their favored choices.

We’re joined now by representatives of three of those groups. Curt Levey is executive director of the Committee for Justice; Nan Aron, founder and president of the Alliance for Justice; and Cesar Perales, president and general counsel for the Puerto Rican Legal Defense and Education Fund, he joins us from New York.

And, Mr. Perales, would it be fair to say from the outset that you’d say straight up, “I would like to see a Hispanic on the Supreme Court?”

CESAR PERALES, Puerto Rican Legal Defense and Education Fund: I would say straight up, I would like a Hispanic on the Supreme Court. I would also say that this is a great opportunity for this president to make a historic choice, a president that all of his life has been making history.

This, as Eric Holder just referred to, the fact that the court ought to represent all facets of our nation. Let us keep in mind that probably after the next census we’ll learn that one out of six people in this country is a Hispanic, and we’ve never had a Hispanic on the court. This is an opportunity to name a Hispanic to the court.

And I urge that, not just because I think that demographics would dictate that, but because I think a special perspective, a special insight would be brought to the court’s deliberations, something that I think is necessary and something that I think is about time it occurred.

A diversity of perspectives

RAY SUAREZ: Nan Aron, similar to Sens. Barbara Boxer and Olympia Snowe, would you say, "Mr. President, please, time for another woman on the court?"

NAN ARON, Alliance for Justice: Well, most importantly, I think it's important for the president to choose an individual with impeccable legal credentials, someone who's committed to core constitutional values, believes in equal justice for all and not just some.

But having said that, I think there is on the Supreme Court a gender imbalance that should be addressed. What a wonderful opportunity to pick a woman at this point. The president has talked about diversity.

And even Ruth Bader Ginsburg, who sits on the Supreme Court, said recently in a dissent in the Lilly Ledbetter case that the court does not understand or is indifferent to gender discrimination facing women.

I also think it would be wonderful to pick a Latino on the Supreme Court. I think, as Eric Holder just said, the court serves everyone in the United States, and its legitimacy is derived from having confidence from all Americans, not just a few.

So I think taking diversity into account is a very, very positive thing at this moment.

RAY SUAREZ: Curt Levey, do you agree with the previous two speakers that these are valid metrics for looking at the next nominee?

CURT LEVEY, Committee for Justice: Well, I think diversity is important. While I don't believe like the president does and some of the groups on the left do that a judge should favor certain groups over other groups -- and, let's face it, that's what empathy means. If you walk into a courtroom and the judge says, "I have empathy for your opponent," that doesn't mean you're going to get blind justice.

But that said, I think having a diversity of perspectives on the court is very useful. I mean, the most important thing is having someone who's highly qualified, someone who believes in the rule of law, rather than judicial activism. But if you can get all that and have someone with different perspectives than the current justices, that's great.

RAY SUAREZ: With a Democratic Senate and now a Democratic Oval Office, has landscape fundamentally changed for groups like yours that might have had a lot more input into previous nominations?

CURT LEVEY: Oh, sure. There's no doubt that we would have had more input if we had a majority in the Senate. I doubt that we would have -- the Republicans would have filibustered the nominee, because they've never done that, no less to a Supreme Court nominee. But, sure, it does put you at a disadvantage only having about 40 votes.

But that said, we've already seen an example with Dawn Johnsen, an Obama nominee to the Justice Department, that even with just 40 Republicans, all you need is a couple of red-state Democrats that have doubts about the nominee and the nomination gets stalled, as Dawn Johnsen's does.

And the same thing will happen here if he -- Obama, that is -- nominates somebody with as radical views as Dawn Johnsen.

'Empathy' in context

RAY SUAREZ: Nan Aron, the word "empathy" is being batted around, and the president talked about it when he talked about what he was looking for in a nominee. Do you define it in the way Curt Levey does?

NAN ARON: Well, I think, actually, President Obama has talked about empathy now for several years. And I think its importance can be found recently in a case that was just argued before the Supreme Court involving a 13-year-old girl who was strip-searched.

And in that case, the question was, was the strip search a reasonable one? And to really focus and figure that question out, you needed some justices on that court who knew what it was like to be a 13-year-old girl who could have been strip-searched. After all, we only had one female justice on the court.

So empathy is really being able to stand in the shoes of someone else. And, again, it's critically important to have individuals on that court who have a range of experiences, perspectives that they can bring to the decision-making process.

RAY SUAREZ: Cesar Perales, in other contexts, the president has used the phrase "life experience" in much the same way. Why is that important? And why should that be under consideration instead of strictly legal scholarship, writings, time on the bench?

CESAR PERALES: Well, before I answer that, I do think it is important to look at scholarship, to look at intellect, to look at integrity. And I would suggest that we have many Hispanics who meet all of those qualifications.

So let me just say, in direct response to your question, everybody in this country is affected by the decisions of the Supreme Court. The Supreme Court is that part of our government that is to protect the rights of the minority, to protect us from the tyranny of the majority.

And I think that to have somebody who has experienced life very differently from many of the people who are today members of the Supreme Court would bring a different perspective, would bring something else to the deliberations, which I think would improve the court, and I think that is what the president wants to do.

The president wants, certainly, to bring somebody to the court who is the equal of all of the other justices, but more than that, somebody who brings something special. And I think that a Hispanic appointee would do that and would, in essence, improve the court and improve the rule of justice.

Influencing the president's choice

RAY SUAREZ: Well, Mr. Perales, in addition to this television program, who else do you get to say that to? Is there a mechanics at this stage of the game for people like you to talk to people who have influential opinions on who gets the next seat?

CESAR PERALES: Well, I think there are many Hispanics who have expressed their views and will continue to do that, but I don't think we should be pressuring the president of the United States.

The president has been thinking about this well before he was elected. I have every confidence that he's going to make a good choice.

I would suggest that, if he is truly interested, as he says he is, in empathy and in bringing diversity to the court, that he seriously consider a Hispanic. It is time for us. And I think, as I've said before, it would really make a difference to this country if we had somebody on that court.

I might add, Ray, that you're a great newsman, but I think you bring something special to some of the stories you cover. Ninety percent of the time, you're as good as any other newsman. Ten percent of the time, you bring something special to that.

And that's what I am suggesting can happen at the Supreme Court level when these discussions are taking place. You need somebody who brings something special to the table so that we can all profit from it.

Hispanics are very proud of you, but you bring something special to all of the viewers of PBS.

The political divide

RAY SUAREZ: Curt Levey, is it different for you now? Who do you get to call? The other end of the phone is not in the Oval Office anymore, but what do people on your side of the question do during this part of the lobbying effort?

CURT LEVEY: First, I wanted to make a quick response, which is just to say that there was a Hispanic gentleman, Miguel Estrada, who was a prime Supreme Court potential nominee under Bush, and a lot of Hispanic groups opposed him and it came out in memos that they opposed him because they feared he would go to the Supreme Court.

So I think, you know, we're going to take a more principled approach here. We are happy to have the first Hispanic be a Democratic nominee as long as it's someone who respects the rule of law.