Sessions still bothered by "empathy standard"

The ranking Republican on the Senate Judiciary Committee said he was impressed by Supreme Court nominee Sonia Sotomayor, but that he is still troubled by what he called an "empathy standard" when selecting federal judges.

Sen. Jeff Sessions (R-Ala.) said the "great tradition" on a neutral and independent judiciary is under assault thanks to President Obama's pledge to consider whether judges can put themselves in the shoes of petitioners who bring cases before courts.

"With this view -- that a judge should use his or her personal feelings about a particular group or issues to decide a case -- it stands in stark contrast to the impartiality that we expect in the American courtroom," Sessions said in the weekly Republican radio address. “If a judge is allowed to let his or her feelings for one party in the case sway his decision, hasn’t that judge then demonstrated a bias against the other party?"

In an interview on C-SPAN last month, the president said the ability to understand how a decision will impact the lives of average Americans would be a consideration in his picks for judgeships.

"You have to have not only the intellect to be able to effectively apply the law to cases before you," Obama said in the interview. "But you have to be able to stand in somebody else's shoes and see through their eyes and get a sense of how the law might work or not work in practical day-to-day living."

Obama has long used the word "empathy" to describe a quality he thinks is important for judges to have. When he was running for president, he explained to a Planned Parenthood convention he would pick people with "the empathy to recognize what it's like to be a young, teenaged mom, the empathy to understand what it's like to be poor or African-American or gay or disabled or old."

Republicans have seized on those words to question whether Sotomayor or others of Obama's judicial picks would capably apply the rule of law.

"his standard is deeply troubling because it is so contradictory to our country’s long heritage of a faithful and impartial adherence to the rule of law," Sessions said. “Impartiality is a cornerstone of the American legal system. The rule of law is a hallmark of an orderly society. Together, they form the basis for the moral authority of law."

Still, Sessions -- who ascended to the post atop the Judiciary Committee after Sen. Arlen Specter (D-Pa.) defected to the Democratic Party -- said he was committed to a fair confirmation hearing for a nominee he said had "a rich and engaging personality, a marvelous personal story."

"She also has a strong resume, the sort of education and legal background we should look for in a nominee," Sessions said of Sotomayor, who attended Princeton University and Yale Law School.

"Too often in the past, confirmation hearings have devolved into political theater, short on substance and long on distortions of character and record," said Sessions, who underwent his own contentious confirmation hearing in the 1980s for a federal judgeship he was eventually denied. “I am convinced that the Senate can do better. When the American people look back on these hearings, I’m hopeful they will remember them as the most substantive, the most thorough, and the most thoughtful in memory, and focused on the issues that really matter."

On the 65th anniversary of the D-Day invasions, Sessions also paused to honor the "great sacrifice" of the thousands of American troops who stormed the beaches of Normandy during World War II.

"The Greatest Generation bestowed on us the gifts of a continued liberty and democratic government, each based on the exceptional American commitment to the rule of law," Sessions said.