Groups Prepare For Battle Over Court Nominee

With President Obama expected to announce his pick of a Supreme Court nominee as early as this week, public interest groups on the right and the left are girding for battle. Liberal groups, so far, have kept a low profile. But conservative groups have been working the media on a daily basis.

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And we'll continue to cover that story through the morning. Now as President Obama considers how to respond to North Korea, he is also facing big decisions at home. He is expected to announce his Supreme Court nominee as early as this week and public interest groups on the right and the left are preparing for a confirmation battle. Liberal groups, so far, have kept a low profile, but conservative groups have been working the media on an almost daily basis, which could put something of a problem to Senate Republicans.

NPR legal affairs correspondent Nina Totenberg has more.

NINA TOTENBERG: Conservatives are pulling resources, writing research papers, and already have put on the Web, ads attacking the three women most often mentioned as possible Obama choices. Here for example is part of the ad put together by the Judicial Confirmation Network against Federal Judge Diane Wood.

Unidentified Woman: The first amendment allows Nazis to march in Skokie, Illinois, but apparently in Diane Wood's court opponents of abortion or students who share religious faith get less protection for their expression. When Wood's decision to discriminate against peaceful demonstrators came before the very court President Obama might appoint her to, the Supreme Court unanimously rejected Wood's position. America deserves better.

TOTENBERG: Abortion, gay rights, gun rights, religion in the public square, these are the hot button issues that conservative groups care about. And if the treatment of accused terrorists helps their cause, they will add that in, too. For these are all the issues that the Supreme Court has ruled on in ways that displease these groups. As always, both sides have code words.

Here's Jan LaRue, chief counsel for the Concerned Women of America.

Ms. JAN M. LARUE (Chief Counsel, Concerned Women for America): We believe that President Obama's commitment to a living Constitution goes as a threat to our very foundation as a nation.

TOTENBERG: And here's Wendy Long of the Judicial Confirmation Network.

Ms. WENDY LONG (Legal Counsel, Judicial Confirmation Network): They're engaged in a giant deception because their true goals and standards have not changed at all. They still want liberal activists who decide cases based on feelings and personal political agendas and not on the text and history and principle of the Constitution and our laws.

TOTENBERG: The groups are refilling their depleted coffers and flexing their political muscles. The National Republican Trust PAC, currently the best-funded independent GOP group, sent a letter to all Republican senators, warning them that they would be held accountable for their votes and pointing to the GOP primary campaign that ultimately forced Senator Arlen Specter to switch parties.

Jack Pitney, a government professor at Claremont McKenna College and a self-described conservative, describes the dilemma for Republican senators this way:

Professor JACK PITNEY (Politics, Claremont McKenna College): Whomever President Obama nominates to the court is likely to join in decisions that conservatives don't like. And so, Republican senators want to go on the record as raising misgivings ahead of time. On the other hand, they don't want to be seen as mere obstructionists or partisan hacks.

TOTENBERG: Alabama's Jeff Sessions, the ranking Republican on the Senate Judiciary Committee, these days, sounds like a senatorial cat on a hot tin roof. Here he is being interviewed on CBS.

Senator JEFF SESSIONS (Republican, Alabama): I think the nominees need to be treated very fairly, but they are taking on a lifetime appointment. Once this confirmation occurs, then they are no longer accountable to the American people, really.

TOTENBERG: Ken Duberstein, who quarterbacked the first President Bush's nomination of Clarence Thomas through the Senate and the nomination of David Souter, says Republicans have to be careful not to look like Dr. No.

Mr. KEN DUBERSTEIN (Chairman and CEO, The Duberstein Group Inc.): Assuming that President Obama nominates somebody who can be viewed as a centrist, the Republicans have to realize that the country is in no mood for an ideological circus.

TOTENBERG: Republican strategists say they don't really expect that a vote either way will cost any Republican in the next election, nearly a year and a half from now. But as Duberstein knows, while conservative groups are ginning up their constituents and their cash, President Obama's numbers have soared post-election and Republican numbers have shrunk.

Mr. DUBERSTEIN: Their popularity, their credibility, their numbers right now are not sufficient to have the full-blown battle that they might want to have if the numbers were different.

TOTENBERG: Nina Totenberg, NPR News, Washington.

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