WASHINGTON (Reuters) - Democratic and Republican senators clashed on Tuesday as debate opened on President Barack Obama’s nomination of Elena Kagan to the Supreme Court, but she was expected to win approval later this week.
Democrats praised the 50-year-old Kagan and urged the full Senate to confirm the former Harvard Law school dean for the vacancy created by the retirement of Justice John Paul Stevens, who had been the court’s liberal leader.
“No one can question the intelligence or achievements of this woman. No one should question her character either,” said Senator Patrick Leahy, chairman of the Senate Judiciary Committee, which held hearings on her nomination.
He said Kagan made clear during her testimony before the committee that she would decide cases based on the law, not based on politics or an ideological agenda.
But Senator Jeff Sessions, the committee’s senior Republican, in opposing Kagan’s nomination said she had a “progressive activist judicial philosophy” and would substitute her views for the law.
“I ask my colleagues to not just be a rubber stamp, not to allow political pressures to influence your decisions, but make an independent and fair analysis of the nominee,” he said.
Kagan is not expected to change the ideological balance of the closely divided court, which for years has been dominated by a 5-4 conservative majority on such issues as abortion rights, the death penalty and church-state disputes.
Republicans said Kagan seemed more driven by politics than by the law and that she lacked the experience to serve on the high court. She would be the first justice in nearly 40 years who had never been a judge.
Democrats replied that the White House lawyer from former President Bill Clinton’s administration has served the past year as Obama’s solicitor general, representing the U.S. government before the high court, and she has received the American Bar Association’s top rating.
Kagan would be Obama’s second lifetime appointee on the nine-member Supreme Court. Judge Sonia Sotomayor was confirmed last year by a 68-31 vote.
Nearly all the Democratic senators and at least five Republican senators are expected to vote for Kagan, giving her far more than the simple majority needed for confirmation.
There have been no threats from Republicans to use Senate procedures to try to block her confirmation vote.
Kagan would be the third female justice on the court and the fourth woman to sit on the court.
Debate could continue until Thursday before the Senate votes on the nomination.
Editing by David Alexander and Vicki Allen