WASHINGTON — The Senate Judiciary Committee's Democratic and Republican leaders met Wednesday and rejected a White House suggestion that the panel begin hearings on Supreme Court nominee Douglas H. Ginsburg before the American Bar Assn. completes its investigation of his background.
At the same time--underscoring the uneasiness many conservatives appear to have about the nomination--two leading abortion foes in Congress have begun quietly circulating a statement reassuring conservative interest group leaders that Ginsburg's wife, Dr. Hallee P. Morgan, "personally objects to abortions."
Morgan, an obstetrician who is not now practicing, performed three abortions during her medical training and then stopped doing so, according to Administration officials.
White House spokesman Marlin Fitzwater had called on the committee Monday to begin its hearings on Ginsburg before the ABA Standing Committee on the Federal Judiciary issues its recommendation on the nomination. He called again Tuesday for quick hearings, suggesting that opponents of the nomination are attempting to delay proceedings and are hampering the high court, which has been short one justice since Lewis F. Powell Jr. retired on June 26.
However, Senate Judiciary Committee Chairman Joseph R. Biden Jr. (D-Del.) and the panel's senior Republican, Sen. Strom Thurmond (R-S.C.), met Wednesday and rejected Fitzwater's suggestion.
Thurmond said he "feels the hearings should be as soon as possible" but "not until after the ABA" reports its findings, his press secretary said after the meeting. When the Judiciary Committee meets today, Republican senators are expected to press for a quick start to the hearings and for an agreement to terminate the sessions before Congress adjourns this year.
The reports of the ABA's judicial screening panel have been major factors in judicial confirmation hearings since the 1940s. The report will be of particular importance in this case because of Ginsburg's relative lack of experience. Last year, when Ginsburg was nominated to a seat on the federal appeals court here, the ABA gave him the lowest of three possible positive ratings after panel members objected to his lack of experience.
In addition, the screening committee's chairman, New York attorney Harold R. Tyler, said Monday that the panel also intends to investigate allegations that Ginsburg violated federal rules on conflict of interest. The ABA's assessment of those charges is expected to carry considerable weight with members of the judiciary panel.
Lack of Enthusiasm
Issues like experience and alleged conflict-of-interest violations have the potential to threaten Ginsburg's nomination because of what conservative leaders in Washington concede is a general lack of enthusiasm for the nominee among their constituents. "He isn't Judge Bork. Judge Bork everyone knew. . . . It takes a little time," said an aide to one leading conservative senator.
Several Republican senators in recent days have appeared to distance themselves from President Reagan's nominee. Sen. Pete Wilson of California, for example, said Wednesday that before Ginsburg was nominated, "I made known to the White House that I thought they had three outstanding jurists to pick from" and Ginsburg was not on that list.
"He would not have been my choice," said Wilson, who made his comments in an interview with reporters and editors in The Times' Washington bureau.
Besides having little evidence that Ginsburg, in fact, shares their beliefs on the social policy issues they care about, many conservatives were troubled earlier in the week by reports that the nominee's wife had performed abortions when she was a medical resident.
Bid to Quell Concerns
Sen. Orrin G. Hatch (R-Utah), a leading supporter of Ginsburg on the Judiciary Committee, and Rep. Henry J. Hyde (R-Ill.), the best-known abortion foe in Congress, met Tuesday with leaders of conservative groups and circulated a statement designed to quell those concerns. Hatch, the statement said, had "personally talked with Dr. Hallee Morgan." The statement went on to say she performed the abortions "before she married Douglas Ginsburg" and "today, she personally objects to abortion."
Ginsburg, the statement added, "is a champion of the principle of judicial restraint." Conservative spokesmen have long said that the high court's decision legalizing abortions is a violation of that principle.
Also Wednesday, conservative Sen. Charles E. Grassley (R-Iowa), a Judiciary Committee member, released the text of a letter he plans to send to the ABA suggesting that the group may be dragging its feet in its review of Ginsburg's record.
"We have been informed that the standing committee could, if required, complete its inquiry in as little as two weeks," the letter said.
In response, ABA President-elect Robert Raven of San Francisco, a former chairman of the judicial screening panel, issued a statement saying that "the appointment of a person to a lifetime position on the nation's highest court is a matter deserving careful and thorough examination."
The ABA "will conduct the investigation of Judge Ginsburg as expeditiously as possible," he said, but "a rushed examination would be a disservice to the Senate and the nation."