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A SUPREME COURT NOMINEE

Conservatives, Pleased With Pick, Say Bush Kept Promise

July 20, 2005|Peter Wallsten and Edwin Chen | Times Staff Writers

WASHINGTON — Since July 1, when Justice Sandra Day O'Connor announced her retirement, social conservatives have fretted that President Bush might name a moderate to fill her seat -- a betrayal, they warned, of Bush's campaign promises and their unwavering support for his reelection.

But those jitters turned to jubilation Tuesday night as leading conservatives praised appellate court Judge John G. Roberts Jr. as an ideological soul mate.

"There's no question that President Bush is a promise keeper," said Tony Perkins, president of the Family Research Council, which is marshaling support among evangelicals for Bush's judicial nominees.

The Rev. Louis P. Sheldon, chairman of the Traditional Values Coalition, described Roberts, who has served for two years on the U.S. Court of Appeals for the District of Columbia Circuit, as an "all-star" on key social issues such as abortion and same-sex marriage.

"Conservatives who supported George W. Bush have no reason to be disappointed," Sheldon said. "He has more than fulfilled his pledge."

The conservatives' gleeful language contrasted predictably with words of caution from abortion rights activists and liberals who vowed to oppose Roberts' confirmation. But unlike Supreme Court battles of the past -- such as the 1987 defeat of nominee Robert H. Bork -- Republicans are in control of the Senate and have the votes to put Roberts on the bench.

The result, leading conservatives said Tuesday night, is a watershed moment in their decades-long battle to transform what they call an "activist court" that has, among other things, maintained a woman's right to abortion, prohibited the display of the Ten Commandments in certain cases and prevented some forms of public prayer. In each case, O'Connor was a swing vote for the majority -- and conservatives said they were sure Roberts would have gone the other way.

As an example, they cited a Supreme Court brief signed by Roberts in 1990, when he was a Justice Department official. In it, he called Roe vs. Wade, the 1973 ruling that upheld a woman's right to an abortion, "wrongly decided" and said it should be overruled.

White House allies moved quickly to prepare a grass-roots-style campaign to press for Roberts' confirmation, using many of the same strategies that helped Bush's reelection campaign turn out millions of evangelicals and others to vote.

Before Bush's announcement, GOP officials -- including Republican National Committee Chairman Ken Mehlman -- held conference calls with party activists, state party chairmen and other key supporters across the country. They were urged to call talk radio shows and pressure their home-state senators.

The conservative group Progress for America created a website, www.judgeroberts.com, featuring a picture of a smiling Roberts wearing a black robe -- and Mehlman referred to the website in an e-mail to supporters. Internet records show the site was registered June 20, and that the group hedged its bets -- reserving similar domain names for Atty. Gen. Alberto R. Gonzales and appellate Judges Edith Brown Clement and J. Michael Luttig, all of whom were considered to be on Bush's short list.

The Family Research Council, which in April sponsored Justice Sunday, a church simulcast to promote conservative nominees to lower federal courts, is already planning Justice Sunday II for August. Confirmation hearings could begin late next month.

As conservatives mobilize, some said Tuesday that they were relieved that Bush decided not to name Gonzales, the former White House counsel and his longtime friend.

Bush allies had said the president wanted to pick Gonzales in part to make history with the first Latino on the court, but conservatives mounted a campaign to paint Gonzales as a moderate, arguing that his antiabortion position was not strict enough.

"Most conservatives were happy it wasn't Gonzales," said David Keene, chairman of the American Conservative Union. "He's a nice enough fellow, but conservatives weren't comfortable with him."

Roberts' nomination is also expected to forge an unusual alliance between social conservatives and business conservatives -- two pillars of the Republican base not always in alignment. Motivated by issues such as lawsuit reform, officials from leading business groups have indicated that they intend to back Bush's nominee. Such groups, which include the U.S. Chamber of Commerce and National Assn. of Manufacturers, have traditionally steered clear of such battles in the past.

Thomas J. Donohue, the chamber's president, said Tuesday that Roberts had "a strong legal background, an appropriate judicial demeanor, and relationships and experience with people and issues along the political spectrum."

On Thursday, the manufacturers' group, headed by former Michigan Gov. John Engler, a Bush ally, will convene a special committee of lawyers from member corporations to discuss Roberts' nomination and decide the group's position.

Conservative leaders said the business involvement underscored that abortion was not the only issue at stake -- that transforming the court was a larger goal that could affect privacy issues, property rights, hiring practices and taxes.

"It's not just about social policy," Keene said. "It's about the way people look at government."

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