Thursday, January 30, 2003

Ohio judicial nominee grilled

Columbus lawyer: Dems are confused

By Carl Weiser
Enquirer Washington Bureau


WASHINGTON - Democrats pelted Jeffrey Sutton with hostile questions Wednesday at his confirmation hearing for the Cincinnati-based 6th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals, accusing him of being an extremist working to undermine federal laws protecting the disabled, women and poor people.

Besides at least nine hours of speeches and questions, Sutton also faced a brigade of disabled activists sporting "Stop Sutton" stickers, liberal groups who distributed a 2-inch-thick stack of anti-Sutton letters and a rally against him back home in Columbus.

The Judiciary Committee hearing had to be moved to a larger room to accommodate the hundreds, including many in wheelchairs, who came to protest Sutton's appointment to a lifetime seat on the nation's second-highest court.

Democrats also criticized Ohio Supreme Court Justice Deborah Cook, nominated for the Cincinnati court as well, and John G. Roberts, nominated for a seat on the District of Columbia Circuit Court of Appeals.

But Democrats - who refused to hold a nomination hearing for Cook and Sutton when they controlled the committee - are now outnumbered on the committee and in the Senate.

[photo] Becky Ogle demonstrates outside a U.S. Senate Judiciary Committee hearing. She and others oppose the nomination of Columbus lawyer Jeffrey Sutton to the Cincinnati-based 6th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals.
(Associated Press photo)
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Republicans universally called the nominees outstanding. "They're going to be confirmed," said Sen. Mike DeWine, R-Ohio, a member of the Senate Judiciary Committee.

Most of the questions and controversy centered on Sutton, Ohio's former state solicitor. The 42-year-old Columbus lawyer has argued 12 cases before the U.S. Supreme Court, winning nine of them.

"You're a legally excellent mind," said Sen. Chuck Schumer, D-N.Y. "But you have pointed views that are way beyond what most people would consider mainstream."

Sutton - who politely thanked the Democrats for their questions - argued that his opponents were confusing his clients' points of view with his own.

In his most controversial case, for example, he represented the state of Alabama and argued that the Americans with Disabilities Act did not apply to state employees. He won that case in the Supreme Court.

But what he wrote in his legal briefs or told the Supreme Court justices weren't necessarily his own opinions, he said; he was just representing his client as best he could.

"I was an advocate," Sutton said. His niche was arguing on behalf of states' rights against what he would argue was overreaching by Congress when they wrote laws like the Americans with Disabilities Act, which protects the disabled from discrimination.

Sutton noted that he has also worked on behalf of disabled Americans, including a blind woman who sued to gain admission to Case Western Reserve University's medical school in Cleveland. He also defended Ohio's hate crimes law and worked for the NAACP.

Democrats, as well as the disabled advocates, were unconvinced.

"Jeffrey Sutton," said Sen. Ted Kennedy, D-Mass., "has actively sought to weaken Congress' ability to protect civil rights and the ability of individuals to enforce their federal rights in court."

And the top Democrat on the committee, Sen. Patrick Leahy of Vermont, asked him directly if he supported states' rights over national rights.

Sutton said if he is confirmed he would make decisions based on Supreme Court precedents and would keep an open mind.

The 6th Circuit Court of Appeals hears cases from Kentucky, Michigan, Ohio and Tennessee. Because the U.S. Supreme Court hears only about 100 cases a year, appeals courts are the final word on almost every case.


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