Saturday, July 2, 2005

A group of the most influential liberal court lobbyists gathered in a high-ceilinged room across the hall from the Senate chamber, within hours of Supreme Court Justice Sandra Day O’Connor’s retirement announcement Friday.

With grave expressions on their faces, the activists stood somberly behind a lectern and one-by-one delivered impassioned pleas that Justice O’Connor be replaced with a jurist who will protect their particular interests.

“This is a watershed moment,” said Ralph G. Neas, president of People for the American Way, noting that this fight will be even more momentous than the one for which they have been preparing for years, the successor to the chief justice.

Most active court watchers were expecting to see the resignation of Chief Justice William H. Rehnquist, an unwavering conservative on the court. With the surprise announcement from Justice O’Connor, often a swing vote on the court, liberal activists such as Mr. Neas rushed from playing offense on replacing a conservative to having to defend a vital vote.

“Over the last 10 years, we have not had a Rehnquist Court; we’ve had an O’Connor Court,” he said, arguing that replacing her with a reliable conservative would be a “constitutional catastrophe.”

Less vocal last week — but every bit as powerful and involved in the judicial-selection process — were conservative activists, some of whom chuckled with delight over their turn of good fortune.

“The game hasn’t changed, but the post-game celebration will be much bigger,” said Manuel Miranda, chairman of the conservative Third Branch Conference. “Drinks will be on me.”

On Friday, many conservatives chose to applaud the service of Justice O’Connor, but to otherwise keep quiet. White House aides and Senate Republicans sent out the word that there should be no public relief that it was Justice O’Connor, rather than Chief Justice Rehnquist, who was retiring.

“Nobody wants to get into gloating here,” said one conservative activist. “We’re all too aware of what’s at stake.”

Activists on both sides of the issue have marshaled thousands of people across the country and raised millions of dollars to wage this battle. About the only thing both sides seem to agree on is that much is at stake.

Karen Pearl, interim president of Planned Parenthood Federation of America, told reporters that “this may be one of the most critical and dangerous moments for the future of women’s reproductive freedom that any of us have seen in our lifetime.”

Few issues carry more voltage on both sides than abortion rights. Ms. Pearl noted the Independence Day weekend and said “there is no freedom more fundamental to our rights than the ability for women to decide whether and when to parent.”

Already, she said, Planned Parenthood has alerted 1 million of its supporters, trained 50,000 local leaders and mobilized more than 170 campus groups to rally against any Supreme Court nominee deemed weak on supporting reproductive rights.

The issue is no less important to conservative activists, who are expecting President Bush to nominate someone who is unapologetically opposed to abortion rights.

“The president has the historic opportunity to keep faith with the promise he has repeated numerous times, which is to name justices who are like Justices Antonin Scalia and Clarence Thomas,” said Jan LaRue, chief counsel for Concerned Women of America.

Many conservatives opposed to abortion have made clear that they would not, for instance, be satisfied with the nomination of Attorney General Alberto Gonzales. Mr. Gonzales is often discussed as a possibility for the high court, but has written opinions conservatives say give adolescents too much leeway to get abortions without notifying their parents.

But abortion won’t be the only issue in the upcoming Supreme Court fight.

Justice O’Connor “served as a moderate voice of reason on the court,” said Nancy Zirkin, deputy director of the Leadership Conference on Civil Rights. “She played a pivotal role in protecting the right and liberty of all Americans in cases involving affirmative action, human rights, religious freedom, criminal justice and the rights of women — including reproductive health — people with disabilities, gays, lesbians and many other communities whose rights are often jeopardized.”

She begged Mr. Bush to follow the “shining example of President Reagan” in naming Justice O’Connor’s successor. Mr. Reagan also nominated U. S. Court of Appeals Judge Robert H. Bork for the District of Columbia Circuit, a staunch conservative, to the Supreme Court in 1987, but his nomination was ultimately rejected by the Senate.

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