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White House Gauging Court Choice's Chances : Reagan and Meese Consult 2 Key Conservatives; Hatch Cites California Judge's Work as Lobbyist

November 10, 1987|DAVID LAUTER and JAMES GERSTENZANG | Times Staff Writers

WASHINGTON — President Reagan and Atty. Gen. Edwin Meese III met Monday with two key Republican senators to try to gauge the depth of hard-line conservatives' reservations about Anthony M. Kennedy, the California federal judge who is the leading candidate for the vacant seat on the Supreme Court.

Two days after nominee Douglas H. Ginsburg's withdrawal from consideration for the post, conservatives expressed concerns about Kennedy's more moderate views and a background that includes more than 10 years as a California lobbyist.

But White House and Senate sources said that no other top prospects for the post have emerged and that the White House, still favoring Kennedy, hopes to announce a nominee this week.

"Everybody's still doing their checks and reviews," one senior White House official said. "My sense is it won't happen before Wednesday." Of Kennedy, the official said: "It's not a sure deal. He's the leading candidate, he's the most probable."

Reservations Expressed

Meese met first with Sen. Orrin G. Hatch (R-Utah), who earlier in the day had publicly expressed reservations about Kennedy. Late in the afternoon, Meese joined Reagan at a White House meeting with Sen. Strom Thurmond (R-S. C.), the senior Republican on the Senate Judiciary Committee, sources said. Both senators have backed other candidates.

Kennedy, 51, a federal appeals court judge in Sacramento, was the favorite for the nomination two weeks ago, but he lost to Ginsburg at the last minute when conservatives, led by Sen. Jesse Helms (R-N. C.), threatened to oppose the nomination. At the time, Democratic leaders indicated that a preliminary look at Kennedy's record had shown nothing that would be likely to spark major controversy.

Among the conservatives, Hatch Monday was outspoken in suggesting that Kennedy could face confirmation problems because he had worked as a lobbyist and because his clients had included a liquor distilling firm. But Administration officials believe that the reservations about Kennedy, who has strong support from many conservative activists, can be overcome.

Administration officials want to act quickly on the nomination both to end the embarrassment caused by the collapse of the Ginsburg nomination, which was withdrawn after the disclosure that Ginsburg had smoked marijuana when he was a Harvard law professor, and to preserve the slim chance that the Senate could begin action on a new nomination this year.

Monday, with controversy still swirling about Ginsburg's withdrawal, Reagan denied that the White House had pressured the nominee to pull out because of the marijuana reports and asserted that Ginsburg voluntarily "chose to leave in view of the harassment" he was receiving.

Reagan would not say who he thought was harassing the nominee. The White House denied that Education Secretary William J. Bennett was acting with White House approval when he called Ginsburg Friday to suggest that he pull out.

'Gutless Wonders' Attacked

Hatch, meanwhile, attacked what he called "gutless wonders" on the White House staff who, he said, had failed to stand up for Ginsburg. White House Chief of Staff Howard H. Baker Jr. "does believe that almost everything can be compromised . . . I do not believe in compromising your principles," Hatch said.

With Ginsburg's withdrawal, Kennedy remains the only candidate who has been interviewed by Meese and Baker, sources said.

The high court seat has been vacant since June 26, when Justice Lewis F. Powell Jr. retired. Months were consumed by Senate consideration and eventual rejection of Reagan's original nominee, Robert H. Bork.

Other Names Suggested

Although several senators have suggested other names to White House officials, none have shifted the White House inclination away from Kennedy, White House sources said. In addition, White House officials have not presented any other names to Senate Democrats, Democratic aides said, a step that would be expected were the Administration to nominate someone else.

The meeting with Thurmond was designed to allow him to have a final chance to argue for the selection of his former aide, William W. Wilkins Jr., now a federal appeals court judge in Greenville, S. C. Thurmond has "made a number of pitches" on behalf of Wilkins, but they have been unsuccessful so far, according to a White House official close to the selection process.

Conservative opposition to Kennedy in the past stemmed from a 1980 ruling that Kennedy issued in a case involving the Navy and homosexuals. Kennedy upheld the Navy's right to dismiss homosexuals from the service but noted, during the course of his opinion, that the Constitution may provide some right to privacy that would protect homosexuals in other cases.

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