Federal Courts and Nominations

Liberals hope to win after string of court losses


The men and women who gather around a table at the Leadership Conference on Civil Rights on Friday mornings have ample experience fighting Supreme Court confirmation battles. Now they’re hoping to win one.

Already, they’re combing through the records of potential nominees, although not, as was the case with Chief Justice John Roberts and Justice Samuel Alito, in search of a way to derail confirmation.

Encouraged by the White House, they’re trying to anticipate a selection, build the case for approval and be ready to deflect the attacks from conservatives already beginning.

“It’s thrilling to be able to promote great judicial candidates,” says Nan Aron, president of the Alliance For Justice, looking ahead to a selection by President Barack Obama that may come as early as this week or next.

Added Janet Murguia, the president of the National Council of La Raza, “We’re all poised to support and mobilize for an excellent nominee.”

Not that the liberal-leaning groups aren’t trying to nudge Obama in one direction or another. While there is a general assumption that he will select a woman and a supporter of abortion rights, Latino leaders recently sent a list of more than 80 Hispanic judges to the White House, a not-too-subtle prod to the president.

Then, too, there’s an undercurrent of concern among some of Obama’s allies that the White House hasn’t been more forthcoming in advance of the nomination.

“I would think it’s fair to say the input is fairly one way at this point,” says Marge Baker of the People for The American Way. Presidential aides are disclosing little, she says.

The White House isn’t publicly talking names, but Doug Kendall of the Constitutional Accountability Center says, “if you make a list of 25 people you’d probably exhaust” the pool of qualified contenders.

Atop that list by general consensus, he said, are Elena Kagan, Obama’s choice for U.S. solicitor general, Judge Diana Pamela Wood of the 7th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals and Judge Sonia Sotomayor of the 2nd U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals. All three are among a group of six or seven candidates who have figured prominently in speculation about Obama’s choice.

Also on the list is Michigan Gov. Jennifer Granholm, scheduled to be at the White House on other business on Tuesday.

If liberal groups are getting ready for Obama to make his pick, so, too, are conservatives.

The Judicial Confirmation Network on Monday unveiled a Web site feature video ads attacking Kagan, Wood and Sotomayor. The site asks visitors to decide which of the three is the “worst liberal judicial activist.” Wendy Long, the group’s counsel, said “these are the three that we perceive to be the most likely” to be nominated by Obama.

Obama’s selection will be the first by a Democratic president in 15 years.

During President George W. Bush’s administration, the Democratic-aligned interest groups mobilized against Roberts and Alito as well as Harriet Miers, whose nomination was ultimately doomed by conservative opposition rather than liberal attacks.

In recent years, they clashed heatedly with Democrats as well as Republicans.

NARAL-Pro Choice America, the abortion rights group, made some Democratic lawmakers uncomfortable in 2005 when it aired a television commercial that sought to link Roberts to violence at abortion clinics.

The group quickly retreated.

Others pressured Senate Democratic Leader Harry Reid to oppose Roberts’ appointment – he did – and came down hard on Sen. Patrick Leahy of Vermont, chairman of the Judiciary Committee, when he voted to confirm the man who now heads the court.

When Alito’s nomination came up, Reid and Sen. Chuck Schumer of New York, then chairman of the party’s campaign committee, privately beseeched liberal groups to go easy on Democrats from states Bush had carried in 2004, Nebraska, Arkansas, the Dakotas and elsewhere.

Earlier that same year, leaders of several outside groups were angry that Reid had offered to allow confirmation of some of Bush’s long-stalled appeals court judges as part of a compromise that would have scuttled others. The negotiations were overtaken by an agreement among senators that defused a confrontation that threatened to shut down the Senate.

Four years and one presidential election later, the circumstances are changed.

Now Pro Choice-NARAL is eagerly employing tactics that did not exist in 2005 as it gets ready to help Obama’s as-yet-unmade selection seek confirmation.

The abortion rights group has contacted 600,000 activists by e-mail about the vacancy. And last week it launched a contest using the micro-blogging site Twitter for dreaming up the best “hashtag” – a name related to tweets covering a specific issue – for a “Supreme Court battle that’s just around the corner.”

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