Most polls suggest that Republican candidates will win enough seats in Tuesday's midterm election to take over the House of Representatives, if not the Senate, for the first time since 2007. If this occurs, all of the committee leadership positions will change over into GOP hands. If the House becomes Republican, for example, no longer will Rep. John Conyers
, the iconic Democratic from Michigan, preside over the House Judiciary Committee
. And if the GOP picks up a Senate majority, a longer shot if you believe the odds, no longer will Sen. Patrick Leahy
, the bald patrician from Vermont, preside over judicial nominations before the Senate Judiciary Committee
If the GOP wins big Tuesday, the new Republican caucus will decide who is leading what committee next January. But there are clear favorites already -- the ranking members of the judiciary committees, for example. On the House side, the ranking member is Rep. Lamar Smith
(R-Texas). On the Senate side, it's Sen. Jeff Sessions
(R-Ala.). It would be a surprise if both of these staunchly conservative Southern politicians were not elevated to the chairmanships of their respective committees. And that would likely mean dramatic changes
in the priorities and pronouncements of the bodies charged with coordinating Congress' contributions, such as they are, to the rule of law.
First, some context. If Smith becomes chairman of the House Judiciary Committee, he'd be the first Republican leader there in 15 years who didn't play a leading role in the Clinton impeachment saga in 1998-1999. The late Rep. Henry Hyde
from Illinois had the top post on the committee from 1995 to 2001. And Rep. James Sensenbrenner
from Wisconsin led the way there for the GOP from 2001 to 2007. Sensenbrenner is still a member of the Judiciary Committee. So are Rep. Steve King (I-Iowa), who recently blasted
as "lawless" a federal judge's ruling striking down the "don't ask, don't tell'' military personnel policy, and Rep. Darryl Issa (R-Calif.), who has promised investigations
from the House Oversight Committee if he becomes its chairman.
Smith is a law school graduate and a career politician and one of the most strident conservatives in the House. A frequent critic
of the media and the federal judiciary, he is an ardent opponent of abortion rights
and a strong supporter of Arizona in its battle with the federal government over immigration enforcement. In fact, this summer he made headlines
when he said that President Barack Obama was "awfully close" to violating his oath of office through his immigration policies. Issa now is on the record
as saying there's "not a chance" the GOP will impeach Obama if it gains the Congress. Smith recently issued a statement of his own
about impeachment -- but it focused upon the fate of the federal judge who struck down California's same-sex marriage ban.
The House Judiciary Committee does not vet federal judicial nominees, as the Senate Judiciary Committee does. But, it does have a GOP makeup, even before the anticipated gains on Nov. 2, to take a leading role in the congressional push back some suggest the Republicans will make against the White House come January. Would Smith hold hearings -- surely carried live by Fox News -- on immigration issues like changing the 14th Amendment's birthright provision? Would he hold hearings into the constitutionality of the new health care law even as the federal courts begin to digest those issues? There is, indeed, an awful lot at stake Tuesday.
If power over the Senate Judiciary Committee were to transfer to the Republicans, it would make history, and not just because it would mark the first time in forever that there's not a Kennedy or a Specter on the panel. If Sessions is chosen by his colleagues, I believe he will be the first person ever to become chairman of the Judiciary Committee after having been rejected for judgeship
by the committee. Sessions has come a long way
since he failed
in 1986. And as chairman he would be able both to better block the pace of judicial appointments by the Obama administration -- leading to even longer waits for judges and trials in our federal courts -- and to greatly impact the narrative should the White House be given the opportunity in the next two years to select yet another Supreme Court candidate.
Thanks to the Sotomayor and Kagan confirmation hearings, we know precisely where Sessions stands on the issues. He blistered
Justice Kagan on her views about military recruitment. He blistered
Justice Sotomayor on, of all things, affirmative action. And he's steadfastly refused
to help confirm the White House's judicial picks. The Senate Judiciary, too, can hold hearings. Here is a list from this past session
, making clear that GOP leaders, if they so choose, would also be able to use this committee to score political points with 2012 voters. The fact that Sens. Orrin Hatch (R-Utah) and Charles Grassley (R-Iowa) are by far the least
conservative members of the committee's GOP caucus strongly suggests that Senate Judiciary wouldn't be, as it often is, more moderate than its House counterpart.
Aside from the two Supreme Court spectacles, and with Democrats in control of both Congress and the White House, neither judiciary committee made a huge dent in public consciousness the past two years. If the polls are correct -- and hey, sometimes they are -- this will surely change when the Congress reconvenes in 2011. As the midterms approach, there are some huge legal balls up in the air -- same-sex marriage, health care, immigration reform. If Republicans gain control of Congress, look for some or all of them to land in the laps of Sessions or Smith -- and thus into your living room or onto your computer screen as well.
Video: You Said It
Ahead of the midterm elections, we asked voters across the country about what they expect to happen if Republicans win control of Congress. Click the play button below to watch their responses: