By Marcia Davis
Washington Post Staff Writer
Wednesday, November 9, 2005
Nan Aron lost the fish this summer.
Aron, the founder of the Alliance for Justice, one of the liberal armies in the war over the judiciary, has lived in her Woodley Park rowhouse for 30 years. There's a small brick pond in the front yard and, much to the delight of the neighborhood children, she filled it with fish over the summer, about 20 goldfish and koi. But summer was also the start of a season of high-stakes judicial battles.
While Aron and her allies were working long hours trying to defeat the confirmation of now Chief Justice John Roberts Jr., her fish disappeared.
"The problem was I was responsible for the fish," Aron says with a bit of self-deprecating humor. "My one responsibility at home was to feed the fish, talk to the fish and protect their safety, and I'd come home and start counting" and realize that there was trouble.
The casualties of war. But when you come from a family of social activists, you can look into an empty pond and find the positive.
"We'll start again next year and hopefully I'll be a little more attentive," Aron says.
Good thing it's fall because the war that court-watchers have been predicting for more than a decade finally arrived last week with President Bush's nomination of Judge Samuel Alito Jr. as his choice to replace Sandra Day O'Connor.
Aron founded the Alliance for Justice in 1979 and established its Judicial Selection Project in 1985. In the years since, she has built a reputation for never giving in. Ever.
Not even when Republicans control the Senate, 55 to 45, and the GOP's right flank has been reenergized by Alito's nomination.
Aron, 57, can survey that landscape and conclude: "We will win this nomination battle, but as in the past it's going to take a huge amount of effort by the entire community, everybody pitching in. In the end, I do think we'll prevail."
The stakes are huge in this battle, where a conservative judge would move the court decidedly to the right, she says. Also, the GOP lost some moral authority in its harsh treatment of Bush's previous nominee, Harriet Miers.
Aron, Ralph Neas of People for the American Way and Wade Henderson of the Leadership Conference on Civil Rights have been a close-knit and consistent team of opposition to conservative judicial nominees. They led the movement that sank Robert Bork in 1987, and they've never looked back.
An op-ed piece in the Wall Street Journal last month called her "the Madame Defarge of liberal court watchers," a reference to a bloodthirsty revolutionary from Charles Dickens's "Tale of Two Cities" who has a knack for knitting.
As Miers just learned, the judiciary fight is a political cage-match, so Aron is used to the critics. But she and her 35-member staff got a charge out of that Defarge shot, says Kelly Landis, an Alliance communications associate. "Except Nan's not much of a knitter," Landis jokes.
What she is, though, is someone who's managed to blend tenacity with a warm, self-effacing style.
As the fight over Alito unfolds, look for Aron on Connecticut Avenue most mornings. She'll be hoofing it downtown to her Dupont Circle offices, moving along like any GS-12, in her white sneakers and carrying two black bags, one full of work, the other with a pair of sensible pumps.
Some days, when there's time, she may stroll through Rock Creek Park, or hike across the Calvert Street Bridge and cut through Adams Morgan. But when she's in a hurry, Aron beelines down Connecticut. These days, she and her young staff -- the average age is 36 -- are in a hurry.
One day last week was packed with meetings, fundraising and lobbying calls, and finally a flight to the West Coast where the Alliance has an Oakland, Calif., office.
Aron set off for Dupont Circle a little after 8:30. The morning was clear and crisp and Rock Creek was a fall portrait. If Americans were in danger of losing ground on the right to privacy, affirmative action and abortion -- as Aron argues -- you couldn't tell when she stopped for a moment.
"Look at that, isn't it just beautiful?" she was saying, her arms resting on the concrete wall of the bridge overlooking the park, her petite frame completely still. It was just seconds, but they held the weight of discovery.
It was the same when she bopped into her office a short time later and stopped at an intern's desk to say she had an idea for the paper he was supposed to write. Or when she oversaw the 10 a.m. staff meeting and was listening to ideas and cheered on the previous day's successes -- there was the press briefing with legal director Seth Rosenthal, the Alliance's podcast was featured on NPR, and even the news that a staffer had found a new house. "Congratulations," Aron kept saying, over and over.
It becomes clear that Madame Defarge, the woman who helped sink Bork, from whom Clarence Thomas narrowly escaped, and who is gathering ammunition against Alito, is, well . . . in love. With politics, with her work, and with the rush of a good fight.
This is her time.
It's the fight predicted for more than a decade, the one expected this summer after O'Connor's announcement that she would retire. But Roberts happened instead. Then there was Miers, who might have been the focus of the fight if she'd had a clear record over which to battle and if her own party hadn't chewed her up.
"You know, I thought if things were different, I could call her up and say, 'Let's play tennis,' " says Aron, who like Miers enjoys the game. "I'm sure she expected opposition from the Democrats, but she got opposition from her own party. That's when it hurts the most."
The cynics may see a bit of backhanded crowing in such comments, but Aron sounds sincere.
Note to Alito: If Aron invites you to a tennis match, wear a cup.
The Alliance, an organization with a budget of about $5 million, is now poring over Alito's 15-year record on the federal bench. The fight is for the Alito narrative, how he's painted before the public as he heads into hearings in January.
There are 253 split decisions and 645 unanimous ones to read. Young lawyers such as David Mickenberg and Avril Luongo of "the pit," where the researchers are stationed, know this because they are busy copying and collating the cases.
In the staff meeting there is talk of media and calls to law professors to solicit their input and support, a poll the group is sponsoring, and ad buys.
"People who know these nominees are going to say nice things," Aron says. "The need to reach out and get other voices out there is imperative."
The race is on for the Senate's Gang of 14, too, those seven Republicans and seven Democrats who helped save the filibuster option and who will be key in this fight, she says.
In Ted Kennedy's Senate office -- where no lobbying is needed -- Aron, lobbyist Richard Woodruff and Rosenthal sit down with an aide to see how the Alliance can help.
"Just keep sending us research," the aide tells them. The meeting lasts less than a half an hour.
Back at the office there are reporters' calls to return and then a meeting with a speechwriter.
Aron's office is full of memorabilia, posters, pictures and cartoons. There is a brick on the bookshelf from a Tennessee prison. As a young lawyer Aron worked on the ACLU's prisoners' rights project. One of her friends climbed over the fence and retrieved a brick for her when the prison was torn down. A framed picture of her and Henderson with a roll call list from the confirmation fight over John Ashcroft hangs on the wall behind her.
And there's the bust.
The woman's sculpted face is turned outward onto Dupont Circle.
Elizabeth Cady Stanton? Some other feminist? Aron, who loves telling a good story, yelps in amusement.
It's actually her great-grandmother, Bessie Pearlstein, carved by her grandmother.
Her kids were freaked out by it, she says. "They found her face very scary. . . . So I gave her to my brother and he put it in his trunk."
It stayed there for months until Aron saved the bust and brought it to the office, much to the consternation of some of the young people who were embarrassed to admit they couldn't identify the famous feminist in the window.
"Finally a student confessed she had no idea who it was, and I asked, 'Who do you think it is?' . . . I told her it was my great-grandmother, and ever since then people have taken to dressing her up" on the holidays.
Aron grew up in New York in a family of social activists.
"My whole family was grounded in activism. My grandmother went around the country raising money and lecturing about Israel, and many of my aunts went down and were part of the civil rights movement. . . . There was a lot of discussion around the family table about social causes."
She met her husband, Bernard Arons, a psychiatrist, when they were classmates (seating was alphabetical) at Oberlin College. They've been married for nearly 37 years, and have three adult children.
She and her husband have a commuter marriage. He works in New York and is home on weekends. "Most people probably don't even know I'm married," Aron says.
Close allies such as Neas do, of course. They have been in the trenches together a long time, share the same opponents and the same goals.
"I think everyone -- before they said anything else -- would say how much they like Nan and what a wonderful person" she is, he says. "But in addition to being a special person, she's also a person that has an extraordinary resolve and there's a lot of steel there. . . . You can always count on Nan never to give up."
Bruce Fein, a Washington lawyer and one of Aron's frequent opponents, agrees about the tenacity. They are cordial, he says, and have debated the issue of the courts for years. Earlier this year they took that debate on the road, appearing at several universities.
"She certainly isn't one who thinks that compromises on her opinions of judicial nominations should be done with any readiness. She's more of the 'Let's stand like the Spartans at Thermopylae,' " Fein jokes.
"Nan is viewed as an effective advocate for her side, someone willing to stage a debate anywhere, anytime and as a vigorous proponent for her side's view," says Sean Rushton, executive director of the Committee for Justice, the Alliance's conservative counterweight.
The left, he says, seems stuck in time. "I think that many on the left like Nan pioneered certain ideas and a particular view of the court in the 1970s and that's what they continue to push today even though the court and arguably the country has moved beyond that view."
Despite Aron's confidence, Fein believes Alito is bound for the court, and he knows that kind of talk doesn't mean much to Aron.
There is another poster hanging right by her office desk. It's from her alma mater, Oberlin College, famously a stop on the Underground Railroad, a fact never lost on her.
"Think one person can change the world?" it asks, then answers its own question: "So do we."