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How much sway interest groups will hold over court selection

They can have an effect. But despite the fury, their influence is only indirect.

By Staff writer of The Christian Science Monitor / July 8, 2005



WASHINGTON

The ads are up, the grass-roots have been activated, and money is flooding pressure-group coffers. Talk radio and cable TV are alive with sound and fury at a turning point in American history.

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In many ways, the battle over who will replace Sandra Day O'Connor on the Supreme Court has the look and feel of an election campaign - and, to further the analogy, right now it's the primaries. But there's a big difference: the audience. Ultimately, voters have no direct say in whom President Bush nominates or whether the Senate will confirm him or her.

The goal, on both the left and the right, is to exert indirect pressure on officials - much the way interest groups get revved up with ads and e-mails over hot legislative topics, such as Social Security. Individual senators, especially those looking at tough reelection fights, will indeed pay attention to the opinions of their voters during confirmation.

But in this nomination phase, with all eyes on the White House, how much influence do activist groups have - especially the social conservatives concerned that Mr. Bush might nominate Attorney General Alberto Gonzales, whom they see as "unreliable"? "President Bush already knows what he needs to know," says Kathleen Hall Jamieson, director of the Annenberg Public Policy Center at the University of Pennsylvania. "This White House information operation is the most sophisticated in history."

For now, liberal activists are making their own arguments on nomination, starting with a call for Bush to consult with the Democrats and then select a consensus nominee. Consultation, or at least the appearance of consultation, is easy. On Monday, Bush meets with key senators from both parties to talk Supreme Court. But no one honestly expects a consensus nominee to emerge.

Once Bush puts forth a name, the true left-right battle will be joined. And, analysts say, the interest-group scenario will look like a form of mutually assured destruction. Neither side wants to cede the battlefield. If both sides remain armed, there's a standoff. Ditto if they both disarm. But in the Supreme Court battle, that won't happen, because of the perceived political advantage in fighting the fight.

If Bush nominates a strong conservative who satisfies his political base, is it still possible that the liberal groups can sufficiently twist public perception and jeopardize confirmation?

Manuel Miranda, organizer of the conservative judicial-nomination umbrella group Third Branch Conference, says he approaches that question like a lawyer.

"You make your best case, and the other side will make its best case," says Mr. Miranda, the former judicial nominations adviser to Senate majority leader Bill Frist. "With everyone operating in good faith, the truth will prevail. So I'm not worried about them. They're going to do what they're going to do, because it pays to do what they do."

The "permanent campaign" - the entire industry of consultants and media gurus that doesn't have much else to do now, this being an off-year in the election cycle - has a large financial stake in the Supreme Court battle. So do the pressure groups on both sides, which together say they will spend $40 million trying to influence the process. "It will probably not be money well spent," says Miranda. "On the right, the fixation is with creating the next Swift Boat ad. On the left, it's an act of bravado to have an ad on TV that CNN will comment on. It's all bogus."

The real impact, he says, will be outside of Washington - with the grass roots, where the voters are.

Nevertheless, Ralph Neas, head of the liberal People for the American Way, touts his coalition's recent use of $5 million to turn the public against the Republican threat to change Senate rules and ban the use of the filibuster on judicial nominations. Conservatives argue that Demo crats, particularly those in Republican-leaning states, have suffered politically when ads emphasized their obstruction of Republican judicial nominees.

One should also never underestimate the fear of reelection defeat that dogs nearly all politicians, no matter how safe their seat. And for senators who know they face a reelection battle, a high-profile confirmation vote counts.

For Sen. Arlen Specter (R) of Pennsylvania, chairman of the Senate Judiciary Committee, his vote against high court nominee Robert Bork in 1987 gave him trouble with fellow Republicans and in 1991, when he supported controversial nominee Clarence Thomas, that nearly cost him reelection.

On the Bork fight, Senator Specter and others who voted "no" said they were swayed by Judge Bork's testimony. "But with politicians, we can't exaggerate the importance of the fact that their constituents back home were saying, 'Whoa, wait a minute, we don't like this guy,' " says Trevor Parry-Giles, an expert on Supreme Court confirmation at the University of Maryland.

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