Liberals Slam Nominee Sutton as Senate Nears Confirmation Vote

By Robert B. Bluey | July 7, 2008 | 8:29 PM EDT

Capitol Hill ( - With the U.S. Senate set to vote on the judicial nomination of Jeffrey Sutton Tuesday, liberal groups turned up the pressure on Democrats to reject the nomination.

Advocates for the disabled led the charge Monday, swarming the Capitol for some last-minute lobbying before Tuesday's vote. Unlike nominee Miguel Estrada, Sutton will actually get a vote on the Senate floor without having his confirmation delayed by a filibuster.

Some of the groups that gathered Monday held out hope Sutton would be rejected. Sen. Tom Harkin (D-Iowa) took the Senate floor later in the afternoon to proclaim his opposition to Sutton's nomination to the U.S. Court of Appeals for the 6th Circuit, which includes Michigan, Ohio, Kentucky and Tennessee.

"I want to make it very clear and unequivocal," Harkin said, "a vote for Jeffrey Sutton is a vote to weaken the Americans with Disabilities Act. You can't have it both ways."

Conservatives, however, were quick to rush to Sutton's aid. They cited his experience as one of the nation's top lawyers and defused criticism that he would strip civil rights laws of their substance.

"The founders of this country believed the federal government should have few and defined powers," said Tom Jipping, senior fellow in legal studies at Concerned Women for America. "That's what they said, and that's the view Jeff Sutton has advocated in court. Now, if that makes it more difficult to advance certain political objectives at the federal level, so be it."

Jipping said liberal groups are treating Sutton like a pinata, knowing that Democrats have already agreed to hold a vote and not filibuster the nomination. He also criticized Harkin's call for additional time to debate the nomination. Sutton has waited 719 days since President Bush nominated him in May 2001.

Senate Republicans, including Mike DeWine and George V. Voinovich of Sutton's home state of Ohio, have praised his qualifications for the job. Sutton is currently in private practice and continues to teach at his alma mater, Ohio State University. He formerly served as Ohio's solicitor, the state's top litigator, and was clerk to two U.S. Supreme Court justices.

Critics have repeatedly cited the views Sutton has taken in several cases, including arguments he made before the Supreme Court in Alabama v. Garrett , a case involving the Americans with Disabilities Act. Sutton won the case, which limited suits that could be brought by disabled individuals.

"If the U.S. Senate allows President Bush to fill the appeals courts with people like Jeffrey Sutton, Americans will not be able to count on the courts to protect their rights," said Ralph G. Neas, president of the liberal People For the American Way.

Conservatives counter that Sutton has no bias against disabled individuals or anyone else. Jipping said liberals were distorting his record because they disagreed with his views on federalism.

Unlike Estrada, who Democrats are filibustering while seeking more information about him, Sutton has come under attack for views has made in public, said Sean Rushton, executive director of the Committee for Justice, a conservative group that supports Bush's nominees.

Those positions are nothing to be ashamed of, though, Rushton said. In addition to representing some conservative clients, he has also worked on behalf of the disabled, minorities and even liberal interest groups like the NAACP and the Center for the Prevention of Handgun Violence.

"Democrats are frustrated by their inability to win electoral majorities, and they have seen much of their agenda rejected by the American people over the past 20 years," Rushton said. "But the courts have been a backdoor way to get some of their policy ideas into the law. The thought of a federal judiciary consisting of judges who do not make new law is irksome to them."

Wade Henderson, executive director of the Leadership Conference on Civil Rights, sees the opposite happening. He said Republicans have been effective since the early 1980s at stacking the federal courts with conservatives.

"President Bush has picked up the mantle and carefully selected individuals who have been outspoken in their support for the states' rights movement," Henderson said. "Jeffrey Sutton has been one of those leaders in the efforts to limit the powers in the area of civil rights."

Neas added that appointees of Republican presidents control eight of the 13 federal circuit courts. By 2004, the conservatives would control all the circuits, he said.

During Monday's debate, Republican senators took the floor to dismiss concerns that Sutton would have a closed mind. But those arguments didn't convince some of Sutton's biggest opponents in the Senate, including Ted Kennedy (D-Mass.), Patrick Leahy (D-Vt.) and Harkin.

"I don't believe that a person with a disability or a civil rights claim could walk into [Jeffrey Sutton's] courtroom and get a fair shake," Harkin said. "In Jeffrey Sutton's world, people with disabilities are not protected by the United States Constitution."

E-mail a news tip to Robert B. Bluey.

Send a Letter to the Editor about this article.