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Bennett Calls On Ginsburg to Quit : Education Secretary, With President's Knowledge, Asks Judge to Withdraw

November 07, 1987|DAVID LAUTER and RONALD J. OSTROW | Times Staff Writers

WASHINGTON — Education Secretary William J. Bennett, told by President Reagan to "do what you think is right," called Supreme Court nominee Douglas H. Ginsburg on Friday night to urge that he withdraw following disclosures that he had smoked marijuana.

Bennett warned the federal judge that "the situation is hurting the President."

Ginsburg's response was noncommittal.

In public remarks earlier in the day, Reagan had vowed to stand by Ginsburg, declaring that his nominee "was not an addict."

Support Erodes

By evening, however--after support for Ginsburg had steadily eroded throughout the day--when Bennett called Reagan to inform him of his plans, the President advised him to do as he thought right, Bennett spokesman Loye Miller said.

Miller said Bennett told Ginsburg that he would not be making the call if the President had said anything to discourage him.

The incident, the result of a firestorm of controversy over Ginsburg's admission a day earlier that he had smoked marijuana on a number of occasions, brought his flagging high court nomination to the brink of demise. Even before his conversation with Bennett, an outspoken conservative and a leader of the Administration's anti-drug fight, Ginsburg was quickly losing support among conservative Republican senators who are Reagan's strongest supporters.

"This Administration is conducting a war on drugs," Sen. Larry Pressler (R-S.D.) said. "It will be very hard to explain support for a person who used marijuana while a professor of law. . . . I would have a very difficult time supporting his nomination."

Sen. Warren B. Rudman (R-N.H.) said the White House is "going to have to seriously consider" whether Ginsburg's confirmation remains possible.

Sen. Phil Gramm (R-Tex.) called Ginsburg's revelations "a very negative factor," although he said he was not yet ready to vote against the nomination.

Others were more blunt: "You like to think people who are appointed to the Supreme Court respect the law," said Senate Judiciary Committee member Charles E. Grassley (R-Iowa).

Bennett's call to Ginsburg appeared to be a classic example of the President's handling of such politically sensitive internal personnel problems. Reagan, over his years in government, has shown extreme reluctance to dismiss aides or back away from nominees who have become an embarrassment, typically allowing subordinates to put pressure on them to resign or withdraw.

'Hurts the President'

After calling Reagan, Bennett telephoned Ginsburg at his judicial office here and told him that he felt strongly that the marijuana use was "not right," according to Miller, who said that Bennett added that Ginsburg's acknowledgement made the fight to confirm him "not winnable." To continue only "hurts the President," Bennett said.

At this point, Ginsburg could "gracefully" withdraw--something he would not be able to do later, the education secretary said.

Ginsburg gave a noncommittal response, saying that he was surprised at Bennett's recommendation to withdraw. Only hours earlier, the nominee said, he had been at the White House and received encouraging signals.

Bennett responded by saying that he had talked with the President after Ginsburg had his meeting with White House officials.

The conversation marked a turnaround for Bennett, who only Monday had given a strong speech in favor of Ginsburg at a Cabinet breakfast. By Thursday, however, Bennett turned against the nominee after confirming that his marijuana use had occurred when he was a law teacher.

"When he learned that this took place when Ginsburg was teaching students law, something really snapped," Miller said. "He's very much a law-and-order man, and feels particularly strongly about drugs in schools," the spokesman said of Bennett.

Ginsburg admitted Thursday that he had used marijuana during the 1960s and 1970s, telling senators that his use of the drug ended in 1979, when he was a 33-year-old Harvard Law School professor.

Shaky From the Start

Support for Ginsburg's nomination has been shaky from the start, partly because of his relative obscurity in the legal field. He has been a judge on the U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals for the District of Columbia for barely more than a year and has written very few articles and legal opinions, particularly for a nominee to the Supreme Court.

Moreover, since his nomination only nine days ago, Ginsburg's support has dropped considerably after a number of potentially damaging disclosures. On Saturday, the Associated Press reported that he had owned roughly $140,000 in stock in a cable TV company at the same time he had taken the lead role in developing the government's position on a major cable television case.

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