How Much Sway Interest Groups Will Hold over Court Selection ; They Can Have an Effect. but despite the Fury, Their Influence Is Only Indirect

Article excerpt

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.

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. …


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