In its effort to influence President's Bush's choice of a replacement for Sandra Day O'Connor, the liberal advocacy group People for the American Way has called for a "consensus" candidate to succeed the first woman to ascend to the high court.
Similarly, the Alliance for Justice makes no mention of gender when it says that it wants a judicial moderate to replace O'Connor.
Concerned Women for America, which has decried court decisions upholding the right to abortion, is also silent about a candidate's sex as it campaigns for a new justice. The group says only that Bush should "fulfill his promise" to pick a nominee who is most like Justices Clarence Thomas and Antonin Scalia, widely viewed as the court's two most conservative members.
First lady Laura Bush entered the fray while traveling in South Africa on Tuesday. "Sure, I would really like for him to name another woman," she said on NBC's "Today" show. Her comment put her in line with just a handful of organizations that have said the president should heavily consider gender in making his choice.
Although several women are among those rumored to be under consideration, the president and his aides have said gender is not a top consideration in replacing O'Connor, who is regarded as an inspiration by many in the burgeoning generation of women in the law.
Informed of his wife's desire to see a woman named for the post, Bush seemed momentarily surprised before saying, "We're definitely considering people from all walks of life." He added: "When I finally make a decision, it's going to be one based upon a lot of research and a lot of thought about the character of the person, the integrity of the person, the ability of the person to do the job, and the philosophy of the person."
Until it was raised by the first lady, the gender issue had been remarkable for its near absence. The issue's low profile is testament to the polarized nature of the debate surrounding the narrowly divided court, the nation's arbiter for contentious issues including abortion and the power of the federal government to regulate states. A new member could tip the court's balance of power, elevating the stakes surrounding any nominee's approach to interpreting the law.
"Judicial philosophy is a much more prominent issue than gender in the current debate," said Jan LaRue, chief counsel at Concerned Women for America, who acknowledges O'Connor's groundbreaking legal role even as she argues that gender should not be a factor in choosing her replacement. "People forget that lady justice wears a blindfold. We're not talking about a legislator. We are talking about someone who is not supposed to be influenced one way or another by who the litigant is before them."
Barbara Arnwine, executive director of the Lawyers' Committee for Civil Rights Under Law, agreed that gender is taking a back seat to judicial philosophy. "It's all about ideology this time," she lamented. "The principal focus appears to be how radically conservative the nominee will be. That is overwhelming the gender issue."
Arnwine said that much of the concern that might otherwise be surrounding gender is probably salved because a woman, Ruth Bader Ginsburg, remains on the court even if O'Connor is replaced by a man.
Wendy E. Long, legal counsel for the Judicial Confirmation Network, one of a web of advocacy groups established to support Bush's judicial nominees, said that given previous breakthroughs, gender should no longer be a factor in selecting Supreme Court nominees. "The only criteria should be an outstanding legal mind, legal credentials and faithfulness to the Constitution," she said. "Race, gender -- those things shouldn't matter at all."
That certainly was not the case 24 years ago when President Ronald Reagan nominated O'Connor to the high court. Reagan made it clear that he wanted to put a woman on the Supreme Court, and O'Connor's 99 to 0 confirmation by the Senate was hailed as a historic achievement for women.
O'Connor, who regularly speaks to women's legal groups about her struggles landing a job after graduating from Stanford Law School in the early 1950s despite a stellar academic record, has helped spearhead explosive growth in the number of women in legal careers.
In the early 1980s, women accounted for 13 percent of lawyers and just over a third of the nation's law students. Women now account for nearly half of the nation's law school graduates, nearly 30 percent of the nation's lawyers, 16 percent of the partners in large firms and 17 of the nation's state supreme court judges, according to the American Bar Association's Commission on Women in the Profession.
Debra L. Ness, president of the National Partnership for Women and Families, is among the handful of activists pushing for Bush to nominate a woman. She said the court would benefit from the diversity of experience that another woman would provide. "The great American experience is not the same for women and men and for blacks and Hispanics and whites," Ness said. "We are all products of our life experience, and we see the world through the lens of our experience."
Marcia D. Greenberger, co-president of the National Women's Law Center, agreed that a woman should take O'Connor's seat. But, she added: "It would not serve women if a woman came to the court bound to set aside many of the legal rights women have been able to secure over the past 20 or 30 years."