New Right strategy: let's drag out O'Connor's confirmation hearing; Focus: abortion, women's rights, school prayer

Abortion foes are gathering a head of steam for a last push against Judge Sandra Day O'Connor, the first woman to be named to the US Supreme Court. One opponent spent two weeks scouting out Mrs. O'Connor's record in Arizona and combing through records of the years she served as Republican majority leader in the state senate.

Armed with his detailed report, right-to-life supporters have been knocking on senatorial doors charging that the Arizona appeals court judge is a feminist and a liberal -- or at least, not a conservative.

So far no US senator has publicly opposed President Reagan's choice for the high court. But opponents say they hope conservative senators will ask enough tough questions at her confirmation hearings Sept. 9-11 to drag them out longer than planned.

And as a reminder of their disapproval, thousands of abortion foes are gathering in Dallas for a rally Sept. 3. While organizers deny that it is a "stop O'Connor" rally, her nomination clearly sparked the meeting.

Members of ultra-conservative groups hope that the hearings next week will reveal not only that O'Connor has consistently supported abortion rights but that she has been liberal in areas of criminal penalties and women's rights. Conservative Caucus director Howard Phillips labels her past record "radical feminist."

However, William Billings, director of the National Christian Action Coalition, spent two weeks in Arizona and claims to have done the most exhaustive study of O'Connor's record. He says that the nominee hardly fits into any particular political mold and that he hopes to shock liberals, too.

For example, Mr. Billings found that in 1973 then-state Senator O'Connor voted for a bill to prohibit labor unions from making political campaign contributions. And in 1972 she voted for a measure urging Congress to call a constitutional convention to pass an amendment to put voluntary prayers back into classrooms.

O'Connor also voted to urge the President and Congress to oppose handgun controls, and she has twice backed measures aimed at halting busing for racial balance in schools.

As evidence that O'Connor had liberal leanings, Billings found that she spoke out against a bill to restore the death penalty in 1973. According to one report, she remarked to the Arizona senate judiciary committee, "Georgia has the highest homicide rate in the nation and the highest rate of execution."

Among her other "wrongs," in view of her conservative opponents, O'Connor as a state legislator introduced an act to abolish public drunkenness as a crime and voted to lower the legal drinking age from 21 to 19.

From 1972 to 197 4 O'Connor pushed for ratification of the Equal Rights Amendment (ERA) in the state legislature. (Arizona has never ratified the constitutional amendment.) She sponsored a bill to lift the eight-hour restriction on working days for women.

As further evidence of Judge O'Connor's "feminism," critics are pointing to her term on the Defense Advisory Committee on Women in the Armed Forces, during which she favored dropping restrictions, such as a ban on Navy women from serving on combat ships.

What most rankles her opponents, who are virtually all "right-to-lifers," is her record on abortion. In 1970 O'Connor reportedly voted in the judiciary committee for a proposed bill that would have legalized abortion long before the US Supreme Court struck down anti-Abortion laws in 1973.

A US Department of Justice memorandum dated last July 7 reports that during a telephone interview Judge O'Connor said she could not recall her 1970 committee vote, which was not officially recorded. However, a local newspaper report said that she had voted for the 1970 bill, which eventually failed in the State Senate.

Mr. Billings also found that in 1974 O'Connor opposed a move urging Congress to overturn the Supreme Court ruling permitting abortions. And in the same year , she voted against an appropriations bill for the University of Arizona Hospital because it had an anti-abortion provision. The July Justice Department memorandum reports that she voted no "on the ground that the Arizona Constitution forbade enactment of legislation treating unrelated subject matter." (The bill, including the rider, was made law, however.)

"I don't think we have anything devastating" on O'Connor, says Peter B. Gemma Jr., executive director of the National Pro-Life Political Action Committee. But he contends that the information is enough to prolong the hearings.

"We're hoping that she will give the kind of answers that are indicative of her past" during the hearings, says Mr. Gemma, whose strategy is to make them so long and controversial that the nominee will drop her name. recalling the two cases of President Nixon's appointees who were forced out by controversy, Gemma says, "We hope to create that kind of atmosphere."

The only nonideological criticisms that opponents say they have found involve charges of conflicts-of-interest during her 1970-1974 years in the Arizona Senate. However, the charges appear to be weak, and even her opponents are not emphasizing them.

One charge is that she voted for an automobile dealership licensing bill that made it more difficult for new dealerships to move into the state. At the time her husband, John Hay O'Connor III, was serving on the board of directors of a car dealership company. Mr. O'Connor, a lawyer, explained in a telephone interview that he had "no financial interest" in the company.

As a state senator, Mrs. O'Connor voted for 12 banking and financing bills, although she was serving at the time on the board of a major bank.

John P. Frank, a Phoenix lawyer and a foremost expert on judicial conflict-of-interest law, calls conflict charges in these cases "frivolous." He said that only those who had a direct financial interest have conflicts, not persons serving on boards or as advisers or lawyers.

Mr. Frank, who served as the US Senate's expert witness when it probed a conflict-of-interest charge against Nixon Supreme Court nominee Judge Clement F. Haynesworth Jr., said he sees no such difficulties for O'Connor. Adding that he is neither a political ally now close friend of Judge O'Connor, Frank points out that she has been "cautious if anything to a fault."

"She is aware that you've got enemies out there if you're a front-line woman, " he says. He points to the fact that she disqualified herselt from voting on a handful of banking bills even though it was not absolutely necessary.

She drew some criticism in 1970 when she proposed amendments to an air-pollution law. One Arizona charged her with trying to weaken the law, which would benefit Kennicott Copper Company, a client of her husband's firm. Senator O'Connor responded in the Senate journal that the changes strengthened the law.

Judge O'Connor, who arrived in Washington, D.C., Sept. 2, must first undergo questioning from the Senate Judiciary Committee and then win a confirmation vote in the full Senate before taking a seat on the high court, which opens its fall term Oct. 5.

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