Fifth Circuit Judge Edith Brown Clement, 57, is known as a strict, no-nonsense jurist who brooks no shenanigans in her New Orleans courtroom, but her judicial views on the hot-button social issues of the day remain somewhat of a mystery.
And that lack of a lengthy track record on questions of abortion rights, affirmative action, and gay marriage is part of what makes her attractive to an administration eager to avoid a contentious confirmation battle. But it has some Christian right conservatives and pro-choice liberals wary of how Clement might act on issues that have defined the nation's culture wars if she reaches the nation's highest court.
"She's a solid conservative but unfortunately does not have a very heavy paper trail," says Manuel Miranda of the Third Branch Conference, a coalition of conservative and libertarian groups focused on judicial appointments. "Other potential nominees are more clearly defined."
As a judge, Clement has not ruled directly on the issue of abortion, for example. But during her appeals court confirmation hearing in 2001, she gave a hint on her current views. The Supreme Court, she told senators, has "reaffirmed and redefined" the right to abortion, adding that "the law is settled in that regard." Miranda calls that a "standard answer" that doesn't preclude her ability to help redefine it on the high court. A statement from the liberal group NARAL Pro-Choice America says that "as a Supreme Court judge, Clement would be free to overrule precedent."
Interest groups who object to Clement, a member of the conservative Federalist Society, might have difficulty finding traction on Capitol Hill: In 2001, the Senate unanimously approved President Bush's nomination of the Alabama native to the Fifth Circuit Court of Appeals. At that time, she also enjoyed the backing of both senators from Louisianaincluding Democrat Mary Landrieu, who is still in the Senate.
New Orleans lawyer Bruce Waltzer, a civil rights activist and Democrat who argued before Clement during her decade as a U.S. District Court judge in Louisiana, described her as "conservative, but not in outer space."
"She did not attempt to extend or curtail what was written in the law," Waltzer said. "She is not looking to open up new vistas in tort law and she's not looking to open up new vistas in product liability. That's the difference between someone who's conservative and someone who is reactionary."
During Clement's hearing before the Judiciary Committee, Republican Sen. Orrin Hatch lauded her District Court record of authoring move than 1,300 opinions, of which only 17 were reversed, partially reversed, remanded, or vacated. "That's an astonishing record," said Hatch. "Judge Clement is particularly known for her expertise in the fields of admiralty and maritime law."
Born in Birmingham, Clementwho is known as "Joy"graduated from the University of Alabama in 1969, and received a degree from Tulane University Law School in 1972. After clerking two years for Judge Herbert W. Christenberry of U.S. District Court for the Eastern District of Louisiana, she went into private practice with New Orleans firm Jones, Walker, Waechter, Poitevent, Carrere & Denegre. Clement specialized in maritime and insurance defense litigation and was named partner in 1979. Colleagues in the legal community say she was an excellent, tough lawyer who could be taken at her word.
President George H.W. Bush in 1991 named her to preside over the court where she'd once clerked. She served there until winning confirmation to the appeals court. During her confirmation, Democratic senators raised ethics questions about corporate-sponsored travel she took as a judge, but she nonetheless won approval, 99-0.