March 2013: Who and What to Watch in 2013

Washington Watch | March 2013
By Bruce Moyer

With the start of President Barack Obama’s second term and the beginning of a new Congress, here’s a guide to the key legal policy issues and players to watch in Washington in the year ahead.

Three Areas to Watch
Judicial Nominations

President Obama has a second chance to improve upon the spotty judicial nominations record he compiled during his first term. More judicial vacancies remained at the conclusion of 2012 than existed when he entered office four years earlier. The President may have the opportunity to name at least one more nominee to the U.S. Supreme Court in 2013. The replacement of Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg, who is 79 and the oldest member of the Court, however, would not tip the Court’s balance of power. No president since Ronald Reagan has appointed three Supreme Court justices.

Outlook: The White House will ramp up to vet and send judicial nominees to the U.S. Senate more quickly. Senate Republicans are likely to continue to push hard to deny President Obama a legacy based on his choices for the federal court bench.

Immigration
Another attempt at comprehensive immigration reform is expected early in the 113th Congress. Many analysts, and some GOP leaders have suggested that the tough stance on immigration taken by many Republican lawmakers in the past may have cost them the White House and contributed to weakened numbers in the U.S. House of Representatives and in the Senate in the last election. A barometer for congressional action will be the fate of the DREAM Act, which creates a procedure for undocumented immigrants to gain citizenship if they were brought to the United States before age 16, have been in the country for five years, and graduated from high school.

Outlook: Lawmakers from both parties may be eager to show they can actually get something done. But some GOP leaders have cautioned that a change in their party’s position on immigration issues alone may not necessarily win over more ethnic voters.

Gun Control
The Sandy Hook massacre has propelled gun control back to the top ranks of the policy agenda in Washington. The ban on military style assault weapons, which expired in 2004, is not likely to be revived. Congress could require more intensive background checks to keep guns out of the hands of individuals suffering from serious mental illness.

Outlook: The brutal slayings of 20 children in Connecticut has had a profound impact upon public attitudes among Americans about guns and gun rights, especially the ownership of assault weapons. The National Rifle Association and the gun rights lobby will face the strongest test of their power in years.

Five Key Players to Watch
Rep. Robert Goodlatte (R-Va.) will take over the chairmanship of the House Judiciary Committee, replacing Rep. Lamar Smith (R-Texas), who was limited by House GOP caucus rules from continuing to hold the gavel. Reps. Goodlatte and Smith hold similar conservative views. Rep. Goodlatte chaired the Intellectual Property, Competition, and Internet subcommittee during the drafting of the controversial Stop Online Piracy Act (SOPA), which eventually was shelved after criticism from free speech advocates.

Sen. Patrick Leahy (D-Vt.) will continue to lead the Senate Judiciary Committee, after declining at the end of last year to use his seniority to take over the chairmanship of the Appropriations Committee, following the death of that panel’s long-time leader, Sen. Daniel Inouye (D-Hawaii). Sen. Leahy, a former prosecutor, will continue to be called upon for moving judicial nominees through the Senate confirmation process.

Sen. Chuck Grassley (R-Iowa), the top Republican on the Judiciary Committee, is beginning his 32nd year on the panel, and will continue to be his party’s leading opponent of targeted nominees and a proponent of aggressive oversight of the Obama administration.

Sen. Diane Feinstein (D-Calif.) is the second most senior Democrat on the Judiciary Committee. Sen. Feinstein pushed for the creation of more federal judgeships in the last Congress, and her plan for 10 district judgeships in five courts facing emergency situations could be approved in early 2013, as part of a funding bill for the federal courts. She also will lead efforts to renew the assault weapons ban.

Whether Attorney General Eric Holder Jr. will remain as the nation’s top law enforcement officer remains uncertain. The attorney general was the subject of numerous Republican inquiries during President Obama’s first term, including one that led to an unprecedented House vote that found him in contempt of Congress. Further Obama cabinet shuffling could include the top spot at the U.S. Department of Justice.

Bruce Moyer is government relations counsel for the FBA. © 2013 Bruce Moyer. All rights reserved.

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