Sen. Jeff Sessions 'troubled' over Obama court picks

The top Republican on the Senate committee reviewing Sonia Sotomayor's nomination to the Supreme Court said Monday that he is concerned President Obama is driving federal courts "far to the left" by choosing "activist" judges for the bench.

Sen. Jeff Sessions, R-Ala., said Obama's judicial nominees, including Sotomayor and three others to the U.S. Court of Appeals, raise questions about what role a judge's background should play in deciding cases.

"I'm troubled, I have to say, by President Obama's philosophy of judging," Sessions, a Senate Judiciary Committee member, told USA TODAY and Gannett Washington Bureau reporters. "When he talks about wanting a judge to show empathy, that's very troubling to me."

Sessions, a former prosecutor, said he does not expect Republicans to filibuster Sotomayor's nomination, but he said she is the latest in a pattern of Obama nominees he has found troublesome.

"She seems to be willing to accept that a judge's rulings may be influenced by the judge's personal backgrounds or feelings, which is sort of what President Obama has said," Sessions said.

Hearings for Sotomayor's nomination are scheduled to begin July 13.

Sessions singled out three other nominations: David Hamilton of Indiana for the Chicago-based U.S. Court of Appeals for the 7th Circuit; Andre Davis of Maryland for the Richmond, Va.-based U.S. Court of Appeals for the 4th Circuit; and Gerard Lynch of New York for the New York City-based 2nd Circuit.

University of Pittsburgh law professor Arthur Hellman, who has studied judicial appointments, said it is difficult to generalize about any Obama pattern with so few nominations.

"The differences struck me more than any similarities," Hellman said of the nominees. "Lynch is a straight-down-the-middle former prosecutor. With Hamilton, you have someone who happens to have two high-profile cases in two of the most contested areas of the law, abortion and prayer."

Sessions focused on two Hamilton rulings. In one, Hamilton invalidated an Indiana law requiring women seeking abortions to obtain information about the procedure's risks. In the other, Hamilton forbade references to Jesus Christ in opening prayers at the Indiana Legislature. Both decisions were reversed.

Republicans have questioned comments made by Sotomayor that a "wise Latina woman" would more often reach a better conclusion "than a white male who hasn't lived that life." White House spokesman Ben LaBolt deferred to a May interview in which Obama said, "What I want is not just ivory-tower learning. I want somebody who has the intellectual firepower, but also a little bit of a common touch and has a practical sense of how the world works."