From White House pulpit: Philly lawyer Tim Lewis pushes SCOTUS nominee Garland

As a former federal judge whose nomination sailed through a politically divided Senate, Tim Lewis has taken up the cause of Supreme Court nominee Merrick Garland with fervor.

Lewis, a partner at the Center City law firm of Schnader Harrison Segal & Lewis L.L.P., and a former judge on the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Third Circuit in Philadelphia, has traveled the country, written op-eds, and testified on Capitol Hill making the argument that the Senate is obligated to hold hearings on Garland's stalled nomination.

On Saturday, though, Lewis' pulpit was the White House.

In a rare departure from tradition, Lewis gave the weekly White House address - typically given by the president himself - in a five-minute video with Vice President Biden in which both urged the Senate to hold hearings.

Lewis said that with the death of Justice Antonin Scalia, the court has been unable to resolve conflicting legal opinions among the circuit courts below it.

And that has led to disarray.

"Unresolved decisions by the Supreme Court are leading to federal laws that should apply to the whole country being constitutional in some parts but unconstitutional in others," Lewis said. "If this continues, our freedom of speech, our freedom to practice our faith, our right to vote, our right to privacy - all could depend on where we happen to live."

Biden said that during his time as chairman of the Senate Judiciary Committee, every nomination sent to the Senate got a hearing and was voted on by the full Senate.

"I presided over nine total nominations - more than anyone alive," Biden said. "Some I supported. Others, I didn't. But every nominee got out of committee to the Senate floor, even when the nominee did not receive the majority report in my committee. Not much of the time, not most of the time, every single time."

Garland, the chief judge of the U.S. Court of Appeals for the District of Columbia Circuit - perhaps the nation's most influential appellate court short of the Supreme Court itself - is known as a moderate-to-liberal jurist with a pro-prosecution bent in criminal matters.

Senate Republicans have said they won't move the nomination, preferring that the next president, either Democrat Hillary Clinton or Republican Donald Trump, fill the slot.

The issue, and Saturday's address, is particularly resonant for Lewis.

It was Biden, then chairman of the Senate Judiciary Committee, who shepherded Lewis' nomination to the Third Circuit through the committee and onto the Senate floor.

President George H.W. Bush had nominated Lewis in September 1992 and a short time later, after a 30-minute confirmation hearing, his nomination was voted out of committee. On Oct. 8 of that year, the Senate unanimously confirmed Lewis; Biden phoned him with the news from an Amtrak train as the senator was traveling home to Delaware from Washington.

And that was in the heat of an intensely fought reelection campaign by Bush, which he lost to Bill Clinton. Lewis served on the Third Circuit from 1992 to 1999.

At the time of Lewis' confirmation, government was divided as it is now. But Lewis attributes the ease with which his nomination passed the Senate to greater respect for Senate traditions of collegiality.

Biden's close working relationship with the committee's then-ranking Republican, Arlen Specter of Pennsylvania, also played a part, Lewis said.

Lewis put his own moderate-to-liberal politics aside in 2006 when President George W. Bush nominated his Third Circuit colleague Samuel A. Alito Jr. to the Supreme Court. Lewis testified on behalf of Alito, a staunch conservative.

Lewis stepped in to support Alito because he said he admired his jurisprudence and because he believed Alito would evaluate legal issues on their merits, independently of his political views.

"As someone with an active commitment to civil rights, as a pro-choice supporter of feminist causes who believes in progressive approaches to social issues and problems, I took a lot of heat for standing up for Sam Alito," Lewis said in Senate testimony in May. "I still do. But it was the right thing to do. I did not share his conservative ideology. But we had worked together for years and I found him to be a good person and a fine judge . . . well-qualified to serve on the Supreme Court, whether I agreed with him or not."

The address can be seen on the White House website, whitehouse.gov.

cmondics@phillynews.com

215-854-5957 @cmondics

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