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Conservatives take aim at Supreme Court candidates

In a preemptive strike, right-wing groups launch Internet attack ads against Obama's possible nominees. And liberals return fire.

May 21, 2009|James Oliphant

WASHINGTON — As President Obama is interviewing candidates for the Supreme Court, prospective nominees are being debated and dissected on blogs and in chat rooms. Conservative groups have posted campaign-style attack ads on YouTube. Counter-strikes are being launched by liberal groups.

The prime targets are Judge Diane P. Wood of the U.S. 7th Circuit Court of Appeals, who reportedly met with the president this week while in town for a legal conference, and two other women rumored to be on Obama's short list: U.S. Solicitor Gen. Elena Kagan and Judge Sonia Sotomayor of the U.S. 2nd Circuit Court of Appeals.

Those three and other possible nominees have undergone deep background checks as part of the selection process, according to a Democratic official who requested anonymity because he was not authorized to discuss the matter.

"Wood ruled that peaceful abortion demonstrators should be punished under the same law that applies to mob bosses," said one Internet ad launched by conservative groups Monday. Another ad, with ominous music playing, says that as dean of Harvard Law School, Kagan "kicked the military off campus during a time of war." In Sotomayor's court, still another ad says, "the content of your character is not as important as the color of your skin."

Fights over Supreme Court picks are nothing new, but this one is taking place with unusual specificity before a nominee has even been announced. That's because speculation about whom Obama will choose focused almost from the start on a small number of prospects.

The battle has been fueled by the Internet.

"I think that the Internet and blogs have been great in terms of being able to distribute information easily," said Thomas Goldstein, a litigator who has argued cases before the Supreme Court and who created the popular SCOTUSblog, which focuses on the high court. "The downside is that there is an equal leveling effect in which totally idiotic wing nuts can go off -- that's true on both the far left and far right. . . . So it contributes to good people being torn apart for no reason."

But those who hope to influence the president's choice say they had to move quickly.

"If you've got a really tough race in front of you, you've got to come out quick," said Charmaine Yoest, president of Americans United for Life, an anti-abortion advocacy group that participated in the ads.

But Yoest doesn't hold out much hope that Obama will listen to her side. "We understand that the external political circumstances are against us," she said. "We are trying to educate people as to what the stakes are here."

In that group, Yoest includes the Republican members of the Senate Judiciary Committee, who she hopes will question the nominee aggressively.

Gary Marx of the Judicial Confirmation Network, a conservative group that assembled the attack ads, said the spots are an attempt to properly "frame the issue."

People for the American Way has tracked the conservative effort on a website, "Right Wing Watch."

"They are rallying their base using the same old buzzwords that they used during the last presidential campaign -- and it didn't work," said Marge Baker, a vice president for the liberal interest group.

But even if conservatives have little hope of influencing the Supreme Court nomination, there are other benefits to firing up their followers.

"A lot of it is fundraising," said Jonathan Adler, a law professor at Case Western Reserve University in Cleveland and a conservative legal commentator. "If you are a conservative group and you want more Republicans in the Senate, then you really harp on this issue."

But the tactics are distressing, Adler said, adding that the confirmation process has been locked in a "downward spiral" for more than 20 years.

"I think we're talking about the wrong things," Adler said. "It can have negative effects on the judiciary. And it could steer people away from the court who are easy to demonize."

The ultimate result, he said, "is a worse judiciary and a tainted confirmation process."

Bradford A. Berenson, a former lawyer in the George W. Bush White House, said Obama's administration is partly to blame for conducting a "lengthy, semipublic deliberation" over the nomination. Justice David H. Souter announced his retirement May 1.

That "virtually guarantees that the interest groups will mount attacks and exert both public and private pressure in an effort to influence the selection," Berenson said. "In some ways, that is the point of proceeding in this way -- to get a feel for the strength and type of opposition particular candidates will face."

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joliphant@latimes.com

Christi Parsons in the Washington Bureau contributed to this report.

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