Senate Judiciary Committee chairman Arlen Specter went back on his word to Republican caucus members and conservative groups alike when he recently hired Hannibal G. Williams II Kemerer, who until recently was the NAACP’s assistant general counsel. Specter hired Kemerer against the wishes of his senior Judiciary Committee staff. “We warned him this was going to cause trouble, but Specter said it was his committee, we are his staff, and he’s going to do what he believes is right,” says a Judiciary Committee staffer.
Kemerer was a protégé of Elaine Jones, who three years ago, as head of the NAACP Legal Defense Fund, lobbied Sen. Ted Kennedy to delay confirmation of many of President Bush’s judicial nominees to a federal circuit court where her group had pending litigation. When Jones and Kennedy’s deal was revealed, she was forced to resign.
Specter hired Kemerer to deal specifically with the nominations and vetting of federal judicial nominees, a position many conservatives were led to believe by Specter would go, at the very least, to a Republican, and most likely to a conservative.
Specter, according to a longtime conservative judicial observer, made those promises during a meeting in late 2004 at which Specter was pleading for an opportunity to serve as Judiciary Chairman.
When word of Kemerer’s hiring spread within the NAACP and Democratic Senate ranks, virtual whoops of glee were being emailed about.
As word earlier this week began to leak of Kemerer’s employment, Specter slid his new hire into a staff position on the committee dealing with civil litigation issues and tort reform. And according to the Judiciary source, word is that all remarks made to the press are to make clear that Kemerer will not be working on judicial nominations.
But Specter, according to some close advisers, has told them as well as Kemerer that Kemerer will play a “critical” role on the Judiciary Committee.
“What everybody seems to be forgetting is that this guy is going to have access to all of our files, to all of our briefings. He will have access to everything because he is on the majority staff. If he were a Democratic hire, it might be another matter,” says the Judiciary staffer. “But theoretically he is one of us.”
Specter has further inflamed both the White House and Republican leadership in the Senate by his request that all judicial nominees — even those who previously were cleared by the Judiciary Committee — go through committee hearings. This would mean that someone like filibustered Texas supreme court justice Priscilla Owen would have to face full committee once again. “That hasn’t gotten out too far, as far as I know,” says the committee staffer. “But conservative legal groups are livid.”
Specter’s decisions are expected to have rippling effects. Already there is talk among some conservative groups of punishing fellow Pennsylvania Sen. Rick Santorum for what they view was duplicitous behavior in backing Specter’s candidacy for the Judiciary chairmanship. Santorum, who expects to have a tough reelection fight in 2006, is expected to distance himself from Specter in the coming days.
Meanwhile, other conservatives are attempting to figure out what can be done to have Specter removed as chairman. Meetings are planned on Friday and early next week with Sens. Jon Kyl and John Cornyn to map out strategies. One figure looming large, but who has not yet spoken out on this issue, is Sen. Sam Brownback. According to Senate insiders, Brownback was very active early in the controversy in November and early December when Specter’s candidacy and position as Judiciary Chairman was in doubt. Brownback’s staff met with a number of grassroots organizations actively opposed to Specter’s chairmanship. And this was before Brownback knew he would be sitting on the Judiciary Committee.
As for Senate Republican leadership, it is believed that Sen. Bill Frist is not necessarily inclined to prevent his caucus from taking steps either to punish Specter or to leave him twisting in the wind. “When Specter was worried about his job, you didn’t see Frist out there patting him on the back and telling him it would be okay,” says a staffer on the National Republican Senatorial Committee. “Frist was very fair and made Specter earn it. Now Specter has pissed all that good will away, and we want blood.”