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Lopsided Fight Over High Court Shapes Up

Conservatives Prepare For Underdog Role

In 2005, the pro-Republican group Progress for America ran television ads in support of John G. Roberts Jr.'s nomination to the Supreme Court.
In 2005, the pro-Republican group Progress for America ran television ads in support of John G. Roberts Jr.'s nomination to the Supreme Court. (Progress For America)
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Washington Post Staff Writer
Friday, May 8, 2009

When John G. Roberts Jr. was nominated to the Supreme Court as chief justice, a pro-Republican group called Progress for America had $18 million in the bank.

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Run by a lobbying firm with close ties to the Bush White House, the well-organized group had snatched up Internet domain names for dozens of potential court candidates, allowing it to launch a targeted Web site within minutes of the announcement. It went on to play a central role in winning confirmations for Roberts in 2005 and Justice Samuel A. Alito Jr. in early 2006.

But Progress for America is now defunct and Republicans are in the political wilderness, leaving a smattering of opposition groups to make the conservative case against whomever President Obama chooses to replace retiring Justice David H. Souter.

Conservative groups concede that they have little chance of derailing Obama's choice, barring a scandal. But Supreme Court nominations have long been a rallying point and a fundraising opportunity for interest groups, particularly on the right. And now, at a time of ideological drift among Republicans, a loose coalition of conservative organizations has begun mapping strategies.

The goal, they say, is to fire up supporters and shake up the debate in the Democratic-controlled Senate, in part as preparation for other court fights to come.

Just hours after news of Souter's retirement broke last week, more than four dozen conservative activists hastily put together a conference call to plot their attack. Among other things, they divvied up the jobs of conducting background research on potential candidates, such as Solicitor General Elena Kagan and U.S. Court of Appeals Judge Sonia Sotomayor.

The Committee for Justice and other organizations have issued new fundraising appeals. The Family Research Council, along with other abortion foes, is gearing up to oppose a nominee who, like Obama, is likely to favor abortion rights. The National Rifle Association says it will examine Obama's choice in light of the high court's recent ruling weakening gun laws in the District.

"There's no question the political landscape is different," said Jay Sekulow, chief counsel for the American Center for Law and Justice, a conservative legal group. "But the conservatives are not lying down here and just saying, 'Let's give up.' We want real hearings and real debate."

The looming battle provides a striking example of the sea change that has swept over Washington in the past three years, with Obama in the White House and Democrats close to controlling 60 seats in the Senate.

Liberal groups such as People for the American Way and the Leadership Conference on Civil Rights -- which were part of the opposition on judicial fights during the Bush years -- now find themselves ramping up in favor of a nominee who will have the backing of the White House and Senate leaders. Democrats also have a number of new groups, including the Obama-backed Organizing for America project at the Democratic National Committee, that can throw weight behind a nominee.

"The tables are turned, and their side has lost the bully pulpit," said Nan Aron, president of the liberal Alliance for Justice. "For us at the moment, it's a chance to reintroduce the courts as an issue and to offer a vision of the kinds of judges we want and that are best for America."

Sen. John Cornyn (R-Tex.), who played a lead role in promoting the Roberts and Alito nominations, acknowledged that Republicans "have our work cut out for us," saying: "We have fewer senators. We have fewer staff. We have fewer resources, without the White House or the Department of Justice."


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