After the U.S. Senate confirmed Justice Sonia Sotomayor in August, a debate began over how much influence the National Rifle Association had over the final tally of 68-31. Liberals said the NRA, which opposed Sotomayor, had failed, while conservatives said they were encouraged the gun-rights group even got involved.
Gregory Craig, who helped direct the confirmation as White House counsel, said Tuesday that the NRA opposition certainly hurt.
“I believe that Justice Sotomayor would have received many, many more votes from Republicans in the Senate if the NRA had not, out of the blue, without any warning, opposed her nomination and, with very little justification whatsoever, made the Senate vote on Sotomayor a pro-gun versus an anti-gun vote,” Craig said in a speech at Georgetown University.
Craig, looking tanned after a three-week break that took him to New Zealand, spoke at length about Sotomayor’s nomination in an hour-long discussion. He also touched on other aspects of his year-long time as President Barack Obama’s counsel, a job he left in January. He started Monday as a partner at Skadden Arps Slate Meagher & Flom.
Conservatives have defended the NRA’s decision to get more involved in Sotomayor’s nomination than the group had been in previous Supreme Court nominations. They note, for example, that the Court heard arguments Tuesday in a gun case that could determine whether the right to bear arms is a fundamental right that applies to states and localities.
Craig said he had “no formal or informal notification” of any impending vacancy at the Supreme Court. He would only allude to how the White House learned of Justice David Souter’s plans to retire a year ago. “We heard this message from a reliable source, and we believed it to be true,” Craig said.
The morning after news broke that Souter would retire, Craig said he had his first contact with the justice himself. “I called him up and asked him how he wanted to handle this, and he said it would be best for him if we did this immediately,” he said. “And so we agreed that he would send down a note to the president, briefly stating his intention to resign at the end of the term.” Obama announced Souter’s plans shortly thereafter.
Echoing complaints from Senate Democrats, Craig harshly criticized Republicans for “unconscionable” delays in confirming nominees for the district and circuit courts. He said non-controversial nominees, such as Barbara Keenan for the 4th Circuit, who was confirmed Tuesday, should receive votes sooner. A procedural vote on Keenan, he said “was unworthy of the institution.”
Other nuggets from Craig’s speech:
On his decision to go to law school: “I thought that by going to law school I could maximize my job opportunities thereafter, and I could be a law professor or a historian or a government official or even maybe a community organizer. But I discovered, to my surprise, that law school prepares you for only one thing, and it’s not for taking the bar examination. Law school prepares you to be ready to take the bar review course, and then you take the bar exam.”
On what he learned as a federal public defender in Connecticut, early in his career: “Depending on the district, as much as 80 percent of all defendants in the federal criminal justice system are poor and indigent and unable to pay for their own counsel. There is no influential political constituency that looks after this collection of people…. How these people are treated in our federal courts, which in this capacity function as an emergency room for our criminal justice system, determines the credibility and the legitimacy of the entire system.”