McCain castigates Obama on judges

May 6, 2008 9:33:25 AM PDT
Republican John McCain criticized Democrat Barack Obama for voting against John Roberts as Supreme Court chief justice, reaching out to the Christian right on one of their chief concerns: the proper role of judges in government. Conservatives believe federal judges have upset the constitutional balance of power among the courts, the Congress and the presidency by making far-reaching decisions, such as one in 2005 that let cities seize people's homes to make way for shopping malls.

"My nominees will understand that there are clear limits to the scope of judicial power, and clear limits to the scope of federal power," McCain said Tuesday in a speech at Wake Forest University.

McCain, the eventual GOP nominee, promised to appoint judges who, in the mold of Roberts and Supreme Court Justice Samuel Alito, would interpret the law strictly to curb the scope of their rulings. While McCain didn't mention abortion, the far right understands that such nominees would be likely to limit the Roe v. Wade decision that legalized abortion.

Obama, on the other hand, voted against Roberts and Alito. So did Obama's rival, Hillary Rodham Clinton, but McCain stayed focused on Obama.

"Senator Obama in particular likes to talk up his background as a lecturer on law, and also as someone who can work across the aisle to get things done," McCain said. "But ... he went right along with the partisan crowd, and was among the 22 senators to vote against this highly qualified nominee."

"Apparently, nobody quite fits the bill except for an elite group of activist judges, lawyers, and law professors who think they know wisdom when they see it - and they see it only in each other," McCain said.

The Arizona senator said his role models interpret the law strictly, paying attention to what lawmakers intended, as opposed to "activist" judges who, by striking down statutes or court decisions, make laws rather than interpret them. "Activist" is a term conservatives use pejoratively to criticize liberal justices.

Tuesday's Democratic primary in North Carolina was likely to overshadow McCain's visit to the state. Along with Indiana, which also votes, North Carolina is the biggest prize remaining in the nomination battle between Clinton, a New York senator, and Obama, an Illinois senator. McCain's advisers said timing of his speech was not deliberate and that they accepted the invitation for him to speak several weeks ago.

He appeared confused about where he was for a moment Tuesday, saying, "I appreciate the hospitality of the students and faculty of West Virginia," then correcting himself to say Wake Forest as the audience laughed.

McCain was introduced at the school's Wait Chapel by former Solicitor General Ted Olson, a high-profile conservative Washington attorney, and was joined on the stage by a friend and one-time rival, former Tennessee Sen. Fred Thompson, who shepherded Roberts' confirmation through Congress.

By speaking about judges, McCain offered an olive branch to the Christian right, which as been deeply suspicious of McCain.

He has clashed with its leaders and worked against them on issues like campaign finance reform. He also joined the "Gang of 14," a group of senators - seven Republicans and seven Democrats - who avoided a showdown over judges by agreeing to preserve the minority party's right to block President Bush's nominees with the filibuster.

At the time, Republicans held majority control of the Senate; today, they are in the minority. McCain told reporters Monday he would be hard-pressed to find a Republican opposed to the deal "now that the numbers have changed."

Despite his rocky relations with the right, McCain's record on their top priorities - cultural issues like abortion - is very conservative.

While he did say once in 1999 that Roe v. Wade should not be overturned, that amounted to a blip in an otherwise unbroken record of opposing abortion rights for women. McCain has repeatedly voted against federal funding for abortion and has opposed federal Medicaid funds for abortion even in cases of rape or incest.

He also has cast conservative votes on judges. McCain has never voted against a Republican nominee for the Supreme Court or federal courts, the Democratic National Committee pointed out.

"When voters see John McCain's real record, they are not going to elect a radical rubber stamp who voted for every one of President Bush's activist judges and promises hundreds more just like them," DNC chairman Howard Dean said Tuesday.