Court Nominees Will Trigger Rapid Response ; in an Acceleration of Past Nomination Battles, Interest Groups Now Send Missives to Millions - Instantly

Article excerpt

Within 45 minutes of the announcement of a vacancy on the Supreme Court, the conservative group Progress for America Inc. launched a preemptive e-mail ad against "smear attacks" on President Bush's judicial nominees that reached 8.7 million Americans.

It came 18 years, to the day, of a speech on the floor of the US Senate that rewrote the rules on judicial confirmation fights in Washington. The "Robert Bork's America" speech by Democratic Sen. Edward Kennedy, nationally televised, stunned the Reagan White House, not just for its sharp content, but for its timing - just 45 minutes after President Reagan announced his nominee on July 1, 1987. The attacks went unanswered for two and a half months, and the nomination failed.

Ever since, interest groups on both sides have adopted the 45- minute rule: Speed matters, and the first to define the nominee for the American public takes a lead that's hard to ever win back.

Even before President Bush announces his first high-court nominee, hundreds of groups are gearing up for a hair-trigger, rapid- response campaign likely to eclipse any court fight before it in high-tech firepower, if not intensity.

Veterans of the campaign against Judge Bork recall long weekly meetings, a constant flow of paper, and relentless searches for a pay phone.

"I remember spending my life on the phone in my office or at pay phones. We didn't have cellphones. Computers were just coming into our lives," says Nan Aron, president of the Alliance for Justice.

Leaders of the anti-Bork coalition met weekly, usually in the offices of the National Education Association, to discuss strategy, firm up ties with grass-roots groups outside the Beltway, and process a vast paper trail: Bork's opinions, writings, and speeches, and studies of them, editorials and press clips, printouts on targeted senators, reports from the field. While the Reagan White House took a vacation, the anti-Bork coalition met on through a steamy August to gear up for explosive confirmation hearings in September. Member groups kicked in funding to pay for a grass-roots campaign that reached 43 states. …


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