The Right's Moment, Years in the Making

The campaign against Robert H. Bork, middle, shown at his confirmation hearing in 1987, prompted conservatives' current effort on court nominees.
The campaign against Robert H. Bork, middle, shown at his confirmation hearing in 1987, prompted conservatives' current effort on court nominees. (By Charles Tasnadi -- Associated Press)
By Thomas B. Edsall and Dana Milbank
Washington Post Staff Writers
Sunday, July 3, 2005

With the Supreme Court vacancy left by the retirement of Justice Sandra Day O'Connor, the conservative movement has within its grasp the prize it has sought for more than 40 years: the control of all levers of the federal government.

From the ashes of Barry Goldwater's presidential campaign, conservatives have built an enduring governing majority, with Republicans winning seven of 10 presidential contests and holding unified control of Congress for 11 years.

The judiciary has until now been alone in clinging to liberalism and the remnants of the Democratic New Deal coalition. A series of Republican appointments to the Supreme Court -- John Paul Stevens, O'Connor, Anthony M. Kennedy, David H. Souter -- have disappointed conservatives by frequently siding with the court's liberal bloc.

That could well happen again with O'Connor's replacement, but conservatives are cautiously hopeful it will not. President Bush has indicated that he will appoint a justice in the tradition of Antonin Scalia, a conservative stalwart. And the conservative movement has something it lacked during its losing battle for the confirmation of Robert H. Bork to the court 18 years ago: a highly coordinated movement that has fused the big dollars of economic conservatives with the grass-roots clout of millions of religious conservatives.

This, conservatives say, will prevent the defeat of another nominee such as Bork and will inoculate Bush from pressure to appoint a moderate such as Kennedy or Souter. And if it works with O'Connor's replacement, conservatives say, they will have found a formula that will allow them gradually to control the judiciary and revisit the full range of precedents regarding abortion, affirmative action, church-state matters and regulations of business and the environment.

"It is a moment of conclusion after years [in which] the conservative movement has moved very far," said Manuel Miranda, a former counsel to Senate Majority Leader Bill Frist (R-Tenn.) who leads a coalition of groups pushing for conservative jurists. "The resources on the right are so overwhelmingly different from what they were 11 years ago," when there was last a court vacancy.

Connie Mackey, of the conservative Family Research Council, said at a news conference Friday she sees "a tremendous amount of organization, unlike I'd ever seen" in past confirmation fights. "The social-issue groups as well as the fiscal conservative groups are determined that they're not going to see a Borking of any nominee that would be a good constitutionalist." That was a reference to the effective campaign by Democrats to demonize Bork and defeat his nomination by President Ronald Reagan to the high court.

The conservative bid to reshape the federal judiciary has been years in the making. Since the 1973 Roe v. Wade decision -- widely condemned by conservative legal thinkers -- groups such as the Federalist Society have sought to expand the ranks of young conservative lawyers. Dozens of conservative judicial appointments by Reagan and President George H.W. Bush have given the current president a broad pool of judges from which to choose for the high court.

The prospect of a new Supreme Court vacancy has accelerated this campaign. With the blessings of the Bush White House, a team of conservative leaders self-dubbed "the four horsemen" formed in 2002 and has taken over much of the planning for the nomination fight.

These men are C. Boyden Gray, an establishment lawyer who chairs the Committee for Justice; Jay Alan Sekulow, chief counsel for the American Center for Law and Justice; Leonard A. Leo, executive vice president of the Federalist Society; and Edwin A. Meese III, attorney general during part of the Reagan administration.

Gray, in an interview, described a battle plan over two years in the making. The Federalist Society will provide research in support of the nominee. A group called Progress for America, which backed the reelection of Bush in 2004, will spend as much as $18 million on radio and television backing Bush's nominee; and the recently created Judicial Confirmation Network, run by a former Bush campaign coalitions director, is setting up a grass-roots network in the states of six key senators.

"We have been preparing for this for 2 1/2 years," Gray said.

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