WINSTON-SALEM, N.C. - Republican John McCain yesterday criticized Democratic rival Barack Obama for voting against John Roberts as US Supreme Court chief justice, reaching out to the Christian right on one of its chief concerns: the proper role of judges in government.
"My nominees will understand that there are clear limits to the scope of judicial power, and clear limits to the scope of federal power," McCain said in a speech at Wake Forest University.
McCain, the presumptive GOP nominee, promised to appoint judges in the mold of Roberts and Supreme Court Justice Samuel Alito, saying they would interpret the law strictly to curb the scope of their rulings. While McCain didn't mention abortion, Christian conservatives understand that such nominees would be likely to limit or perhaps overturn the Roe v. Wade decision that legalized abortion.
Obama voted against Roberts and Alito. Hillary Clinton did as well, but McCain focused on Obama.
"Senator Obama in particular likes to talk up his background as a lecturer on law, and also as someone who can work across the aisle to get things done," McCain said. "But . . . he went right along with the partisan crowd, and was among the 22 senators to vote against this highly qualified nominee.
"Apparently, nobody quite fits the bill except for an elite group of activist judges, lawyers, and law professors who think they know wisdom when they see it - and they see it only in each other," McCain added.
Obama's campaign responded that McCain would pick judges who represent a threat to abortion rights and to McCain's own campaign finance reform bill.
"Barack Obama has always believed that our courts should stand up for social and economic justice, and what's truly elitist is to appoint judges who will protect the powerful and leave ordinary Americans to fend for themselves," Obama spokesman Tommy Vietor said.
Clinton campaign policy director Neera Tanden said in a statement: "We won't take lectures on the right way to approach the Constitution from Senator McCain, who voted for extreme conservative judges like Justice [Clarence] Thomas. In an effort to pander to conservative voters, Senator McCain has signaled his intention to appoint right-wing judges who are committed to rolling back women's rights and civil rights, elevating the interests of big business over the rights of workers and consumers, affirming executive branch power grabs, and undermining our common core freedoms."
McCain's advisers said the timing of his speech - held in one of the two states holding key Democratic primaries yesterday - was not deliberate and that they accepted the invitation several weeks ago.
By speaking about judges, McCain offered an olive branch to the Christian right, which has been deeply suspicious of McCain.
He has clashed with its leaders and worked against them on issues such as campaign finance reform. He also joined the "Gang of 14," a group of senators - seven Republicans and seven Democrats - who avoided a showdown over judges by agreeing to preserve the minority party's right to block President Bush's nominees with the filibuster.
Conservatives contend that federal judges have upset the constitutional balance of power among the courts, the Congress, and the presidency by making far-reaching decisions, such as one in 2005 that let cities seize people's homes to make way for shopping malls.
The Arizona senator said his role models interpret the law strictly, paying attention to what lawmakers intended, as opposed to "activist" judges who, by striking down statutes or court decisions, make laws rather than interpret them.