For Liberals, High Stakes at High Court

By Thomas B. Edsall and Michael A. Fletcher
Washington Post Staff Writers
Monday, July 11, 2005

Ralph G. Neas, president of the liberal advocacy group People for the American Way, began the George W. Bush years leading the fight against the president's 2001 tax cut. He lost.

Wade Henderson, executive director of the Leadership Conference on Civil Rights, has been a leading voice in opposition to provisions in the USA Patriot Act that he and other civil rights leaders say needlessly restrict civil liberties. So far, the act is unchanged.

Nan Aron, president of the Alliance for Justice, has joined coalitions that have opposed what she saw as pro-business proposals to make it more difficult for consumers to file for bankruptcy and to limit plaintiffs' options in class-action lawsuits. Those measures were passed into law earlier this year.

These liberal lobbyists are a triumvirate now leading the left into what they view as their biggest battle yet: to stop conservatives from replacing retiring Supreme Court Justice Sandra Day O'Connor with a justice firmly aligned with the right. After failing repeatedly in recent years to stop the advance of a conservative agenda by the Republican-controlled White House and Congress, a once-powerful liberal coalition is making what amounts to a last stand over control of the Supreme Court.

If the Coalition for a Fair and Independent Judiciary the lobbyists head is unsuccessful, it will risk not only seeing the courts tilt decidedly more conservative but also seeing the liberal movement lose further credibility as an organizing and advocacy force in Washington. "The stakes are enormous -- they could not be any higher for us," Aron said. "Progressive organizations throughout the country understand how much is at stake with a change on the Supreme Court."

With O'Connor announcing her retirement on July 1 and ailing Chief Justice William H. Rehnquist widely expected to follow sometime soon, the coalition has mounted a huge public relations and grass-roots mobilization campaign to prevent jurists it regards as right-wing judicial activists from ascending to the high court.

The group plans for the effort to stay up and running through the end of Bush's presidency in 2009, as it expects there probably will be other retirements among the aged Supreme Court members. It has organized local coalitions to pressure senators in key states. Neas's group has converted a 2,500-square-foot conference hall into a campaign-style war room, complete with 40 workstations and scores of phone lines, that will be used to mobilize thousands of grass-roots supporters during the height of the coming confirmation battles.

As Bush weighs his options for replacing O'Connor, members of the coalition have been in daily contact to develop talking points for the news media and to coordinate their lobbying and public outreach campaigns.

Those efforts are being amply duplicated on the right, where a constellation of conservative advocacy groups is working to ensure that Bush appoints Supreme Court justices who they believe will strictly interpret the Constitution by reducing federal control over the states, curbing affirmative action and placing greater restrictions on, or striking, a federally guaranteed right to abortion.

The difference is that the efforts on the right, activists say, are buoyed by a sense of ascendancy and imminent triumph. The liberal coalition, by contrast, is in a defensive posture, engaged in a familiar exercise in damage control.

Hanging in the balance, as the liberal coalition sees it, is the legal underpinning for a wide range of economic, civil rights and environmental legislation enacted since the Depression. If successful, Neas said, a conservative court not only will undo a large body of liberal law enacted since 1937, when the Supreme Court upheld the Social Security Act, but also will "remove the constitutional authority for progressive government in the future."

Although Republicans have won slim majorities in recent elections, the GOP has aggressively used its majority power to push through a conservative agenda in Congress, winning praise from allies on the right who advocate a concerted effort to "defund the left" by weakening the political clout of special interests that benefit from particular government policies and that, in turn, provide money and other support for Democratic campaigns.

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