Activists Gear Up For Nominee Fight

If nominated and confirmed, Attorney General Alberto R. Gonzales would be the first Hispanic justice.
If nominated and confirmed, Attorney General Alberto R. Gonzales would be the first Hispanic justice. (Melina Mara/twp - Twp)
By Peter Baker and Susan B. Glasser
Washington Post Staff Writers
Sunday, July 3, 2005

Many of President Bush's conservative supporters lined up in staunch opposition yesterday to the candidate he might personally most want to name to the Supreme Court, his longtime friend and adviser, Attorney General Alberto R. Gonzales, as battle lines were drawn for selection of the first new justice in more than a decade.

Bush has long been intrigued by the idea of making Gonzales the first Hispanic on the Supreme Court, according to advisers, a prospect that might seem especially tempting in replacing Justice Sandra Day O'Connor, the court's first woman. But a range of activists and congressional Republicans warned the White House against the move, saying they do not consider Gonzales a steadfast conservative.

"We would oppose him because we don't believe he has a philosophy that we can determine. We are not enthused," said Tom Minnery, vice president of public policy for Focus on the Family, a conservative advocacy group. "He is someone who is apparently still developing his philosophy, and that's not good enough," Minnery added, citing Gonzales's "lack of open commitment to interpret the Constitution as it was written."

The surge of pressure after O'Connor's retirement announcement Friday reflected the brief but intense struggle that will play out in Republican circles in coming days. Bush leaves Tuesday for an international summit in Europe and does not plan to name a nominee until the week of July 11 at the earliest, leaving Republicans a short time to influence his decision. If the broader nomination battle will resemble a presidential campaign, as both sides predict, then the next week or two could amount to a primary.

While some focused on whom Bush's choice will be, others mapped out strategy for the period after he decides. Senate Republicans made plans to begin hearings as quickly as possible after the nomination, focused not on the candidate's positions on hot-button issues but on legal credentials.

A Republican planning document provided to The Washington Post described the need to avoid disclosing the nominee's "personal political views or legal thinking on any issue."

Democrats, by contrast, prepared a campaign to extend the process and portray anyone Bush selects as outside the mainstream. The liberal People for the American Way moved to claim O'Connor's mantle with a new television commercial that flashes her image and demands that Bush pick someone in her pragmatic tradition who "protects our fundamental rights and freedoms" or risk dividing the country.

Intent on preventing the other side from gaining the upper hand, liberals and conservatives spent the weekend in meetings, on conference calls and drafting talking points for Sunday talk shows -- and preparing for the wild-card possibility that a second seat would open if Chief Justice William H. Rehnquist steps down as well.

From Camp David, Bush consulted by telephone with Chief of Staff Andrew H. Card Jr. while lawyers at the White House assembled dossiers of candidates for him to take on the flight to Scotland, a senior administration official said.

Various activists and groups have lobbied for their favorites on the list of federal appellate judges under consideration. Appeals Judge J. Michael Luttig of the 4th Circuit is the choice of many conservatives who cite his sharp mind and sturdy track record after 14 years on the bench. The Christian Legal Society and other religious conservatives are promoting Judge Michael W. McConnell of the 10th Circuit, although his criticism of the Supreme Court's decision in the Bush v. Gore decision that ended the 2000 election recount left hard feelings at the White House.

Some activists also point to Judge Samuel A. Alito Jr. of the 3rd Circuit, nicknamed by some "Scalito" for demonstrating the same sharp intellect and conservative views of Justice Antonin Scalia. If Bush wants a woman to replace O'Connor, conservatives have embraced Appeals Judges Edith Brown Clement and Edith Hollan Jones, both of the 5th Circuit. If he wants a Hispanic, they have recommended another 5th Circuit judge, Emilio M. Garza, instead of Gonzales.

Judge John G. Roberts of the D.C. Circuit, described as a front-runner by outside White House advisers, does not elicit as much enthusiasm from conservatives but has passed the test of key figures. "Everything I know about him would say he would fit that profile of Scalia and [Clarence] Thomas," said Jan LaRue, counsel to the Concerned Women for America, a conservative group.

CONTINUED     1        >

© 2005 The Washington Post Company