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Senate Republicans pick conservative to take senior Specter slot on judiciary committee

[JURIST] US Senator Jeff Sessions (R-AL) was chosen Monday by Senate Republicans to replace newly-declared Democrat Senator Arlen Specter (D-PA) as ranking Republican on the Senate Judiciary Committee [official websites]. Sessions will play a key role in questioning President Barack Obama's nominee to replace retiring Justice David Souter [JURIST report] on the US Supreme Court [official website]. Obama did not call Sessions Monday to discuss potential nominees for the post [NYT report], but did call former ranking Republican Senator Orrin Hatch (R-UT) [official website], who cannot be reappointed because of term limits. Sessions, a conservative senator and former US attorney, was nominated as a federal judge in 1986 by then-president Ronald Reagan, but his confirmation was blocked by the Judiciary Committee [Washington Post report] over allegedly racist remarks.

On Sunday, Judiciary Committee chairman Patrick Leahy (D-VT) [official website] said in an interview [transcript] with ABC that he hopes to have a replacement for Souter confirmed [JURIST report] by the beginning of the Court's 2009 term in October. Leahy also implied that that he would like to see a nominee who was not a current federal judge. Rumors of Souter's retirement began to circulate late Thursday, and were confirmed by the end of the day Friday. Souter has submitted a letter of resignation [text, PDF], and the Supreme Court has issued a press release [text, DOC] confirming his retirement. The eight other justices also issued statements [text, DOC] about Souter's retirement. Obama interrupted a press briefing [text] Friday to speak about the impending retirement [JURIST report], saying he would, "seek somebody with a sharp and independent mind and a record of excellence and integrity." Souter, 69, was nominated to the Supreme Court by then-president George H.W. Bush and was seated in October 1990. He previously served on the US Court of Appeals for the First Circuit and the New Hampshire Supreme Court. Souter was viewed as one of the more liberal justices, often siding with Justices John Paul Stevens, Ruth Bader Ginsburg, and Stephen Breyer.

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