Arlen Specter’s tenure on the Senate Judiciary committee spanned three decades and led in his own unique way to shaping the modern Supreme Court.
Specter at the 1987 Bork hearings
Specter, 82, passed away on Sunday at his home in Philadelphia.
Specter was elected to the U.S. Senate from Pennsylvania in 1980, after defeating Pete Flaherty in a close contest. Specter, a Republican, had been a two-term district attorney in the heavily Democratic city of Philadelphia.
Once in Washington, the Yale Law School graduate made a name for himself as a moderate Republican who voted on his own convictions. Back home, Specter was popular and he was re-elected four times, serving a state-record 30 years as Pennsylvania’s senator.
But Specter often made more national headlines in the nation’s capital, where his popularity in the Senate shifted as he stood his ground on issues, since he didn’t always vote with the Republican party.
It will be Specter’s role in the Senate’s Judiciary committee that will be a biggest part of his legacy.
Specter’s first vote on the committee was in 1981, when he voted in favor of Sandra Day O’Connor as the first woman to serve on the nation’s highest court. He was the least tenured Republican on the committee at the time.
In 1986, Specter also voted for Antonin Scalia and opted to approve William Rehnquist as chief justice.
In 1987, Specter played a big part in the debate over Robert Bork’s nomination to the Supreme Court. He was widely portrayed as the “swing vote” in the process because of his influence over moderate Republicans.
Specter, the former Yale student, grilled Bork, the former Yale professor, in the nationally televised hearings.
Specter’s eventual opposition to Bork was considered a factor in his nomination’s defeat. His role angered many Republicans.
Specter was one of six GOP senators to vote against Bork in the full floor vote.
Specter angered Democrats, too, with some of his positions on issues.
But there was enough respect for Specter within the Senate that he was picked to chair the Senate Judiciary committee between 2005 and 2007.
As chair, he led the process to approve the nominations of Chief Justice John Roberts and Associate Justice Samuel Alito.
He has also becoming a legendary figure on the Hill for battling cancer twice while he was on the Judiciary committee and serving constituents.
By 2009, Specter felt at odds with the Republican party, which he believed had moved far to the right of his moderate position.
So Specter switched parties, joined the Democratic caucus in the Senate, and joined the Democrats on the Senate Judiciary committee.
Specter lost in a Democratic primary in 2010 and left the Senate in early 2011. At the time of his departure, Specter had played a role in the approval process for the nine current Supreme Court justices.
In 2005, Specter captured what many will consider his legacy in an interview with PBS. He had just come off chemotherapy, which hadn’t stopped him from reading thousands of pages of research about Roberts, as Specter prepared to chair a committee hearing.
“I believe I have the confidence of the president and my colleagues in the United States Senate on both sides of the aisle. I have supported President Clinton’s nominees when I thought they were fit for the job. I have supported and opposed Republican nominees. I am still hearing about my vote against Judge Bork, and I’m still hearing about my questioning of Professor Hill. And I called those shots as I saw them and I think that history will vindicate me on them,” he said.
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