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If High Court Vacancy Opens, Activists Are Poised for Battle

With past judicial fights in mind, interest groups have new tactics ready if Rehnquist retires soon.

June 20, 2005|Janet Hook | Times Staff Writer

WASHINGTON — In 1987, when Democrats derailed the Supreme Court nomination of conservative jurist Robert H. Bork, Sean Rushton was in junior high school. In his liberal New York neighborhood, even his mother sported a "Block Bork" button.

Now 31, Rushton is part of a phalanx of Republicans determined to keep the next conservative nominee from meeting Bork's fate if, as many expect, a Supreme Court seat opens soon.

Ralph G. Neas, a civil rights leader who has been involved in almost every debate over a Supreme Court nominee for the last generation, was a major player in the fight against Bork.

Now 59, he's preparing to mobilize dozens of liberal groups to oppose any new nominee they consider hostile to their interests.

Rushton, executive director of the conservative Committee for Justice, and Neas, president of the liberal People for the American Way, are among legions of activists in and around Washington girding for a battle that could consume the Senate this summer and into the fall. Most anticipate that ailing Chief Justice William H. Rehnquist will retire, perhaps as early as this month.

The vacancy could spark a political drama the equivalent of an extended championship bout.

"The selection of a chief justice is approaching the contours of a general election," said C. Boyden Gray, head of the Committee for Justice and a former aide to President George H.W. Bush.

The Senate has not filled a high-court vacancy since 1994, when President Clinton's nomination of Stephen G. Breyer was easily confirmed. The last contested nomination involved Clarence Thomas, who narrowly won confirmation in 1991.

Both sides are retooling their strategies and tactics to fit changes in the political and media environment since the early 1990s.

For instance, more than half of the Senate's 100 members have never been part of a confirmation debate for a Supreme Court post.

The prospect of a vacancy is drawing a generation of political activists that has come of age as bipartisanship in Congress has become increasingly scarce, especially on filling judicial posts.

And this would be the first vacancy to occur at the height of a politically alert Internet and 24-hour news cycles.

These changes have put a premium on advance preparations for a bitterly partisan fight that could begin moments after President Bush announces his nominee.

Indeed, the planning by liberal and conservative groups reflects one assessment that both sides share: The first few days after Bush announces his pick will be crucial to shaping public perception of the nominee and the ensuing debate.

"We're discussing a 24-hour plan and a 72-hour plan because there is a recognition we need to move quickly right out of the box," said Jim Manley, spokesman for Senate Minority Leader Harry Reid (D-Nev.).

Rushton has lined up a stable of legal experts to deploy for first-day commentary with a conservative perspective.

Neas has readied a "war room" with 75 phone lines and 40 computers to fire up on a moment's notice to promote the liberal viewpoint.

Researchers on both sides have compiled dossiers on potential nominees.

All the frenzied preparations could, in the end, be for naught, because it remains uncertain whether Rehnquist, or any other member of the court, will retire soon.

Retirements from the Supreme Court usually come at the end of the court's term, which this year is June 30. That allows the White House enough time to pick a replacement and the Senate enough time to vote on the nominee before the court reconvenes in early October.

The 80-year-old Rehnquist is thought to be likely to retire because of his thyroid cancer. But some speculate that he remains well enough to stay on the job.

And even if a justice does retire, Bush might not name a nominee who proves as objectionable to Democrats as some of his choices for the lower federal courts have been.

These uncertainties are taking a toll on the people likely to be at the center of debate.

Some senior Senate staffers have been told to postpone making summer vacation plans until it is clear whether there will be a fight over a nominee.

Senate Assistant Minority Leader Richard J. Durbin (D-Ill.), a member of the Judiciary Committee, has had second thoughts about plans to visit Africa in early July, lest he be too far from the barricades if a battle is joined.

"We are stocking up on antacid," said Joe Shoemaker, a Durbin spokesman.

Congressional officials and political activists believe they cannot afford to forgo preparations because past fights over Supreme Court nominees have made it clear that first impressions are often the lasting ones.

One storied example came after Bork's nomination. Less than an hour after President Reagan's pick was announced, Sen. Edward M. Kennedy (D-Mass.) delivered from the Senate floor a scathing critique that is still referred to as his "Bork's America" speech.

It fired the opening shots of liberals' critique of Bork as a conservative extremist.

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