By Michael A. Fletcher
Washington Post Staff Writer
Tuesday, November 1, 2005
Within two hours of President Bush's nomination of U.S. Court of Appeals Judge Samuel A. Alito Jr. for the Supreme Court yesterday, the liberal advocacy group People for the American Way had e-mailed hundreds of thousands of its members, contacted journalists across the country and released a report on Alito's jurisprudence -- all in an effort to derail the nominee.
The conservative Third Branch Conference, meanwhile, spent the hours after the president's announcement happily planning ways to back Alito. In a conference call with leaders of about 75 right-leaning groups, the organization extolled Alito's conservative credentials and urged grass-roots support of his nomination.
"The president really defeated the ogre of stealth nominations," said Manuel Miranda, founder and chairman of the organization, whose opposition was instrumental in sinking White House counsel Harriet Miers's nomination to the high court. "This is a great accomplishment for the presidency."
After years of research, fundraising and occasional skirmishes over lesser positions on the federal bench, liberal and conservative advocacy groups have fired the first volleys in what is expected to be an all-out battle over the direction of the Supreme Court. Both sides are predicting the fight, which is beginning with activists hosting conference calls and sending e-mails and mass mailings to mobilize their supporters, will escalate into a louder public campaign that could possibly culminate in a Senate filibuster battle.
"The president has laid down the gauntlet and the battle is now wide open," said Nan Aron, president of the liberal Alliance for Justice, which successfully opposed conservative judge Robert H. Bork's 1987 Supreme Court nomination. "The stakes couldn't be higher given the dangers posed by Alito's record and the swing seat to which he's been nominated."
In anticipation of this fight, millions of dollars have been raised, which will be spent on television, radio and print advertising. Individual senators can expect to be targeted by advocates on both sides.
Just hours after Alito's nomination, Aron's organization sent e-mails to its network of supporters, which includes thousands of lawyers, professors and law students. The missives urged them to join the effort to defeat Alito.
That work was repeated by a broad spectrum of liberal advocacy groups.
After contacting board members, the National Family Planning and Reproductive Health Association decided to oppose Alito within 90 minutes of his nomination. The group's leaders then zapped e-mails laying out elements of Alito's record -- particularly his support of a Pennsylvania law requiring women to receive permission from their husbands before getting an abortion -- that trouble them most.
"It was the fastest we've ever come out against a nominee," said Judith M. DeSarno, president of the organization. "It just can't be much worse than this."
NARAL Pro-Choice America, an abortion rights group, also mobilized against Alito in the hours after his nomination. The group contacted its 27 affiliates across the country and sent e-mails to hundreds of thousands of its supporters telling them to gird for battle.
"We understand very clearly what's at stake," said Nancy Keenan, the organization's president, who called Alito an opponent of legal abortion. "The president made a conscious decision to cater to the base and left Middle America out in the cold."
With the Supreme Court closely divided on social issues including abortion, affirmative action and the role of religion in public life, advocacy groups on both sides have long anticipated waging a climatic battle over Bush's court nominees. But the president eluded that fate with his nomination of now-Chief Justice John G. Roberts Jr., who is widely viewed as a solid conservative but lacked a clearly defined judicial record on the nation's most contentious cultural issues.
Miers's ill-fated nomination produced a fight -- but not the one that was expected. Her lack of a judicial record or history as a constitutional thinker prompted some conservative groups to oppose her, while liberal groups stayed out of the fray.
By contrast, Alito's 15-year record as an appellate judge has left an extensive conservative record, which has cheered groups on the right as much as it has alarmed those on the left.
Progress for America yesterday put the finishing touches on a week-long series of television ads supporting Alito. The $425,00 ad buy, which will begin airing today, will focus on Alito's long experience as a lawyer and jurist.
"No one can argue that Judge Alito is anything but extremely well qualified," said Brian McCabe, the organization's president.
Concerned Women for America, which had opposed Miers, featured a smiling photograph of Alito on its Web site, noting that the nominee has "an outstanding judicial track record." The group sent e-mails and prepared letters to be sent to its half-million members in support of Alito. At the same time, the organization's leaders fanned out for media interviews extolling the nominee.
"The president got it right this time," said Jan LaRue, the organization's chief counsel. "We only wish he had done this on October 3rd. This judge has always been at the top of our list for the Supreme Court."