Leahy's Court Challenge; Counts on Bipartisanship to Guide Sotomayor Hearings

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There's little surprise that one of Sen. Patrick J. Leahy's favorite characters is Batman. The chairman of the Senate Judiciary Committee has appeared in three Batman movies and added his voice to the animated series that ran in the mid-'90s.

The caped crusader is a good match for the long-serving Vermont senator, who finds affinity with prosecutors and lawmen, Democrat and Republican.

Of the 19 men and women who sit on the Judiciary Committee, six are prosecutors, a dynamic Mr. Leahy says helps break down partisan lines.

I love having prosecutors on the committee, he said. I find that prosecutors, whether they're Republicans or Democrats, they tend to know what the basics are. Everyone's against crime. Who's going to say 'I'm really for the poor criminal,' we know how difficult that is ?

As Supreme Court nominee Judge Sonia Sotomayor began her tour of the Capitol earlier this month to meet with senators, Mr. Leahy highlighted her work as a New York City prosecutor.

Also, from a personal point of view, I'm always glad to see somebody who served as a prosecutor, Mr. Leahy said earlier this month following his meeting with Judge Sotomayor. I think, if you served as a prosecutor, you've been in law enforcement, you really have an understanding of both the good and the bad of life.

Mr. Leahy is banking on his bipartisan reputation as he prepares to shepherd President Obama's first Supreme Court nominee through Senate hearings in a few weeks.

This is not to say Mr. Leahy won't be ready to throw a few elbows in the thick of a political battle.

He blindsided Republican senators earlier this month when he announced confirmation hearings for Judge Sotomayor would start July 13. The announcement forced Republicans to scramble to develop a message.

Mr. Leahy has been out front defending Judge Sotomayor from conservative critics. He called attacks on her as a racist for comments she made that a wise Latina woman would make a better decision than a white male, some of the most vicious he's seen.

At Mr. Leahy's side will be Sen. Arlen Specter, the former Republican and longtime Judiciary Committee member who handed over control of the committee to Mr. Leahy after the Democrats won control of the Senate in 2006.

When asked to describe Mr. Leahy, Mr. Specter used one word: prodigious.

Mr. Leahy has questioned every sitting member of the Supreme Court as a member of the Judiciary Committee.

He's experienced, and that means a lot in how you handle these situations, Mr. Specter said. Protesters will sometimes come into the room, someone will try to organize a filibuster; experience is very valuable.

The two senators met at a state prosecutor's conference in Philadelphia close to 40 years ago. Mr. Leahy was a state prosecutor in Chittenden County, Vt., and Mr. Specter was the district attorney for Philadelphia.

As a young state's attorney, Mr. Leahy set up a task force with Republican Gov. Deane C. Davis to combat gang crime.

We had a gang of armed robbers that were operating in the state, Mr. Leahy recalled. We put together a task force that operated secretly out of my office, and we caught all the gang members. It was because [Mr. Davis] put the resources in there I figured I could do that.

Mr. Leahy remains the only Democrat to represent Vermont in the Senate. We tend to look at things issue by issue, Mr. Leahy said. We're fiscally conservative, very pro-environmental.

While he's won support from the state's moderate Republicans, he recalls an early trip to one of the state's more conservative strongholds. He was introduced as the first Vermont Democrat to serve in the Senate, and a man in the back of the room shouted: We ain't going to make that mistake twice. …