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Right Wing Objects to Bush Aide as a Justice

June 23, 2003|David G. Savage and Richard B. Schmitt | Times Staff Writers

WASHINGTON — For conservatives who care deeply about the U.S. Supreme Court, all the stars look to be aligned.

With the possibility of a high court vacancy coming up, President Bush would be set to choose his first justice and have his choice win approval from a Republican-controlled Senate.

Yet many conservative activists are grumbling -- mostly in private but some publicly -- that Bush will betray their cause if he names his Texas friend and White House Counsel Alberto R. Gonzales to the court.

Gonzales, they say, is a moderate who would support affirmative action and uphold the right to abortion, two positions many conservatives find unacceptable.

If Chief Justice William H. Rehnquist were to retire, as has been speculated he might do this month, and Bush nominated Gonzales to replace him, the move would shift the court to the left, not the right, they say.

Conservative lawyers in and outside the administration have carried on a whispering campaign in Washington, arguing that Gonzales, 47, is neither a true conservative nor "Supreme Court caliber."

Meanwhile, leaders of Christian evangelical groups and grass-roots conservative organizations have been alerting their members and speaking out in hopes of heading off a Gonzales nomination.

"We are absolutely opposed to Alberto Gonzales. He is soft on the constitutional issues we care most about," says Tom Minnery, vice president for public policy at Focus on the Family, an evangelical group based in Colorado Springs, Colo.

As a Texas Supreme Court justice, Gonzales voted in several cases to allow a teenage girl to obtain an abortion without her parents' knowledge. He said he was following Texas law.

Conservative activists are convinced that a Justice Gonzales would not vote to overturn Roe vs. Wade, the 1973 decision that legalized abortion nationwide.

"How in the world can someone with his views be a suitable nominee for George W. Bush? It makes no sense to us," Minnery said.

Speculation that Bush would choose Gonzales has gained steam because of their long association. The Harvard-educated lawyer has been a trusted friend of the president since Bush recruited him as a general counsel when he was elected governor of Texas in 1994.

Gary Bauer, who ran for the Republican presidential nomination three years ago, said a Supreme Court vacancy would put Bush to a test with his conservative base.

"I think any conservative would be deeply concerned by a Gonzales nomination, particularly if he were to replace the chief justice," said Bauer, who founded a Virginia-based group called American Values. Its Web site says a Supreme Court vacancy is a "time for prayer and fasting," and members are urged to send a red rose to the White House to remind Bush of his pledge to protect "the unborn."

"My deep hope is the president would pick one of the many individuals that all conservatives could support," Bauer said.

The activists say they have conveyed their views to the White House, although the matter is complicated because Gonzales is in charge of vetting the president's nominees to the federal courts.

"Karl Rove has heard it from many of us," one conservative activist said, referring to the head of the White House's political operations.

All the jockeying and speculation aside, there is no vacancy on the Supreme Court, and no clear sign anyone will retire this year.

The justices, far from talking about retirement, have been planning for the fall session. They have scheduled a special argument session on Sept. 8 to consider the challenges to the McCain-Feingold law that bans unregulated "soft money" from flowing to political parties.

Rehnquist, 78, has been seen as the most likely to retire, but he has dismissed talk that he is quitting. He has rehired his administrative assistant for another year and has speaking engagements set for the fall.

Nonetheless, liberal and conservative legal groups have geared up for a fight this summer over a Bush nomination to the Supreme Court.

People for the American Way and the Alliance for Justice, liberal lobby groups, have challenged Bush's nominees to the U.S. Court of Appeals, but their leaders have kept their eyes on the Supreme Court.

"The nation will be 'courting disaster' with the next Supreme Court vacancy," Ralph G. Neas, president of People for the American Way, said in a report issued last week. A Bush nominee who shares "the extreme far-right" views of Justices Antonin Scalia and Clarence Thomas could overturn settled law in areas ranging from the environment and civil rights to workers' rights and separation of church and state, Neas said.

To counter a liberal onslaught, C. Boyden Gray, White House counsel for former President Bush, has organized a conservative coalition known as the Committee for Justice to defend the president's court nominees.

"The liberal interest groups will oppose anyone he nominates. They want to make any nomination a referendum on abortion," Gray said.

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