Friday, May 01, 2009

Conservatives gear up for high court fight

Phone lines around Washington began burning this morning as conservative organizations kicked off preparations for the fight over President Obama's eventual Supreme Court nominee.

Associate Justice David Souter's decision to step down at the end of this term has awakened a long-dormant network of conservative organizations that will do their best to augment — and at times pressure — Senate Republican efforts to frame Obama's eventual choice.

A group of more than 50 conservative groups held a conference call early Friday to begin plotting strategy, sources on the call said.

"You're already having chatter between conservatives on who is going to be the nominee, what type of nominee is going to be put forward by President Obama," said Brian Darling, the Heritage Foundation's Senate director and a former top Judiciary Committee staffer.

Groups like the American Center for Law & Justice, the Coalition for a Fair Judiciary and the Committee for Justice will all prepare background research on potential nominees, setting up the eventual, inevitable attacks on the nominee as a left-wing extremist.

Those groups are gearing up for the first time since helping doom the nomination of former White House counsel Harriet Miers in President Bush's second term and replacing her with Samuel Alito.

"We'll be organized. We're more organized than ever before," said Jay Sekulow, the prominent conservative lawyer who heads the American Center for Law & Justice. "The reality is we've got quite a challenge here with a Democratic Senate that's virtually filibuster-proof."

Sekulow also pointed to the fact that Senate Republicans have yet to designate a point person on the nomination. The GOP lost its top judicial spokesperson this week when Sen. Arlen Specter (Pa.), who had been the ranking member on the Judiciary Committee, bolted for the Democratic Party.

Republican members of the Judiciary panel will meet next week to pick a new ranking member from amongst themselves. Senate aides say Sen. Jeff Sessions (R-Ala.), the fourth-ranking member on the panel, has the inside edge.

Recognizing their deficit in the Senate, Sekulow and other conservative operatives said Sessions could be counted on at least to question the eventual nominee closely, as two Bush nominees, Chief Justice John Roberts and Associate Justice Samuel Alito, were scrutinized during their confirmation hearings.

"We'd like a real hearing. They put John Roberts and Sam Alito through very aggressive questioning," Sekulow said. "There's going to be some real tough questions."

A spokesman for Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) said conversations about the Supreme Court vacancy have already begun between leadership offices at a staff level. "The leadership's already engaged on this," he said.

No formal war room or team has been set up yet, as Souter has not even formally announced he will step down.

Though the new nominee is still unnamed, several top Republican operatives are already sending background documents to reporters, questioning oft-mentioned candidates' fitness for the highest court in the nation.

"Part of our strategy was already done," said Curt Levey, executive director of the Committee for Justice. "We have all our research memos done on all the top people."

Early front-runners for the bogeyman nod have cropped up: Darling mentioned Yale University Law School Dean Harold Koh, whom he called "very extreme." Sekulow specifically called out 2nd Circuit Appeals Court Judge Sonia Sotomayor, an early favorite for the nod, as "to the left of David Souter."

"This is not my ideal situation," said Kay Daly, president of the Coalition for a Fair Judiciary. "Obama could conceivably put a justice onto the bench that literally would make Souter look like [Associate Justice Antonin] Scalia."

Some conservative groups see the chance to define President Obama based on his pick. After all, assuming the new justice is installed before the court begins its 2009-'10 term on October 5, that person will have three full terms under his or her belt by the time Obama seeks reelection in 2012.

And with a bevy of hot-button issues set to make their way to the high court, opinions and decisions the new justice writes and joins will be fodder for Republicans hoping to gin up their conservative base.

"It seems like out of the gate [Obama] didn't seem terribly nervous about going pretty hard left," Daly said.

"This is a battle that is very important to the president. It's very important that the president nominates somebody who doesn't embarrass him," Darling said.

Conservative organizations are most worried about potential nominees who have already been confirmed by the Senate, and thus who have already been vetted. Even appointees who generated significant controversy, like Attorney General Eric Holder and Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton, would likely be confirmed.

"When you are talking about nominees who have already passed the confirmation process recently, even if they're controversial, that makes the process so much easier," Darling said.

Conservative activists, though, recognize that a filibuster is not likely.

"Even the Democrats, who took the filibuster to new levels, ultimately weren't able to use it against Bush's nominee," Levey said. Still, he added: "We're all looking forward to a good fight." Reid Wilson The HILL

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