WASHINGTON — Sen. Orrin Hatch is accusing the new Democratic majority of trying to change the rules to make it more difficult to confirm conservative judges.
Hatch, R-Utah, said a hearing that Democrats called Tuesday about changes that they seek appears "to be part of a partisan strategy to change the long-standing practice of this committee by injecting partisanship into the judiciary."
Sen. Charles Schumer, D-N.Y., chairman of a Judiciary Subcommittee on Administrative Oversight and the Courts, says the Senate should be able to consider the ideology of nominees — and reject them if their views are "out of the mainstream."
Hatch submitted a statement saying he worries that "any nominee who disagrees with my Democratic colleagues on various social issues will be labeled as an extremist who is out of the mainstream and who should therefore not be confirmed."
"The Senate's responsibility does not include establishing an ideological litmus test to gauge a candidate's fitness based on his or her position on controversial issues," said Hatch, ranking Republican on the Judiciary Committee, who was chairman until Democrats gained a one-vote majority in the Senate.
"The hallmark of a good jurist is one who does not allow personal opinion to affect objective legal decision-making."
But Schumer told the hearing that "openly considering judicial ideology benefits the judiciary itself by helping ensure that our courts remain balanced and moderate, and represent the views and beliefs held by the majority of the American people."
Schumer added, "On whose shoulders should the confirmation burden rest? Should the Senate ask itself, 'Why shouldn't we confirm this nominee?' Or should the Senate ask the nominee, 'Why should we confirm you?'
"Given the stakes at hand, it makes sense that the burden should rest with the nominee" and not the Senate for confirmation or rejection.
Hatch said such an approach is vastly different than in the past when the Senate generally tried to give presidents deference on their nominees, unless they were shown not to have proper judicial temperament and good character.
"I believe the president's power to nominate judges is an essential part of the balance of powers. This is the reason that despite many ideological and political differences, the Judiciary Committee under Republican leadership confirmed 377 of President Clinton's judicial nominees (a near-record number)," Hatch said.
"If Republicans had infused ideological litmus tests into the process — as some Democrats are toying with doing now — those numbers would be dramatically different."