Social conservatives and pro-life activists are mobilizing against President-elect Barack Obama‘s pick Monday for the No. 3 Justice Department job, a lawyer who aided the effort to remove Terry Schiavo‘s feeding tube during the landmark right-to-die case four years ago.
It is unusual for special interest groups to wage a fight over a sub-Cabinet appointment, but conservatives eager to press the Republican Party to mount some form of opposition to the emerging Obama administration say Thomas J. Perrelli‘s resume as a private lawyer and his appointment Monday as the nation’s associate attorney general may provide the rallying cry.
Mr. Perrelli, a former Justice Department official and Harvard Law School classmate of Mr. Obama’s, helped raise $500,000 for the president-elect’s campaign, has worked as an attorney for the recording industry, which has significant business before the Justice Department, and represented Democratic lawmakers and voters involved in politically charged redistricting cases, an issue certain to rise again with the 2010 census.
But his high-profile role in the Schiavo case in 2005 stirred instant vitriol among pro-life and socially conservative activists who ordinarily focus their energies on judicial nominees.
Andrea Lafferty, executive director of the Traditional Values Coalition, derided Mr. Perrelli’s selection as “just another death-peddler Obama has added to his list of nominees.” She said he’s earned the nickname among pro-lifers of “Piranha Perrelli” for his work on the case.
Tom McClusky, vice president for government affairs at the Family Research Council, said several end-of-life issues could make their way to the federal level in the next four years and having Mr. Perrelli at the department means pro-life causes would have a tougher time winning those debates.
“If the Justice Department isn’t going to do anything about it, the states, what’s to stop them from cases like Schiavo and even worse cases,” Mr. McClusky said.
The Schiavo case is still raw for many pro-life activists, though Miss Lafferty said some senators “are skittish about the whole thing.”
Mr. Perrelli didn’t return an e-mail to his law office. But in announcing his nomination and three others to the Justice Department, Mr. Obama said the four would help restore the Justice Department’s mission of upholding the Constitution.
Mr. Obama said Monday that he also intends to nominate David Ogden, a former assistant attorney general and chief of staff to then-Attorney General Janet Reno, to be deputy attorney general; Elana Kagan, dean of Harvard Law School, to be solicitor general; and Dawn Johnsen, a law professor and former legal director of the National Abortion and Reproductive Rights Action League, to head the Office of Legal Council.
Mr. Perrelli worked pro bono on the Schiavo case with Michael Schiavo’s Florida attorneys and the Florida American Civil Liberties Union. He took an active role in fighting government intervention, particularly against efforts in 2005 by Congress and President Bush to try to change jurisdiction to the federal courts.
“During that period, we had five to six people working round the clock. I slept 20 hours in eight days,” Mr. Perrelli told the Los Angeles Times that year.
“We became involved not to be part of a difficult struggle in a family, but once the government got involved, when the legislative and executive branch got involved to take the decision away from the courts,” he told the paper. “Both the Florida statute and the federal statute were really attacks on the judiciary.”
Miss Lafferty said Republicans need to fight against more than just Mr. Perrelli.
“All of them. I think at every point talk about the truth about these people,” she said.
She said the Schiavo case is still raw for many pro-life activists, though some senators “are skittish about the whole thing.”
Congress ultimately passed, and Mr. Bush signed, a bill urging the federal courts to review the case. The Senate passed the bill without any objections while the House vote was 203-58 in favor. The courts ultimately ruled in Mr. Schiavo’s favor.
During last year’s Democratic presidential primary debates Mr. Obama said he made a mistake in not trying to stop the bill.
“As a constitutional law professor, I knew better,” he said.
The Justice Department nominees will be vetted by the Senate Judiciary Committee and the committee’s chairman, Sen. Patrick J. Leahy, Vermont Democrat, said Mr. Perrelli and the others will “bring strong experience and professionalism.”
Mr. Leahy said he will try to push through the nominees quickly, and pointed to Mr. Bush’s 2001 Justice Department nominees, whom he said Democrats and Republicans alike “moved quickly” to confirm.
That will begin Jan. 15 with a confirmation hearing for Eric Holder, who Mr. Obama has nominated to be attorney general and who because of his involvement with President Clinton’s end-of-term pardons may be the most likely target for Republicans.
But so far, most Republican senators have been conciliatory to Mr. Obama’s picks, with some even saying his choices have eased their concerns.
Several Republican senators active on Mrs. Schiavo’s case in 2005 who are also on the Judiciary Committee didn’t respond to requests for comment yesterday.
Conservative activists said it’s a mistake not to fight.
“The Republicans have not made up their mind whether or not they ought to act like Republicans and respect and support the principles of our party platform as Republicans,” said Colleen Parro, executive director of the Republican National Coalition for Life. “Unless and until they do, they’re going to keep losing elections.”
Activists said there are other nominations they’d like to see challenged, including Janet Napolitano as homeland security secretary and Tom Daschle as secretary of health and human services.