Nebraskans Offer Thoughts on Next High Court Judge

NPR's Linda Wertheimer travels to Omaha, Neb., to ask residents what they would like to see in a new Supreme Court Justice. Earlier this month Sandra Day O'Connor announced she will retire once her successor is confirmed. Most people said President Bush should appoint someone who will interpret Constitutional law without bias.

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RENEE MONTAGNE, host:

President Bush will have at least one opportunity to name a justice to the Supreme Court. Justice Sandra Day O'Connor has announced she will retire once her successor is confirmed. Trying to quiet rumors about his possible retirement, Chief Justice William Rehnquist issued a statement yesterday saying he will stay on the job as long as his health permits. It's been more than 10 years since there's been an opening on the high court. We sent NPR's Linda Wertheimer to Omaha, Nebraska, to ask what people in America's heartland think the president should do.

LINDA WERTHEIMER reporting:

The summer so far has been hot and dry in Omaha. The grass in the city's many parks is glazed with yellow where the mowers have clipped it. There's a haze hanging over the Missouri River on the city's east side and the dust of corn pollen over the west side where the Plains come up to meet the suburbs. Trinity Interdenominational is a big church sitting beside the interstate on the western edge of Omaha. Last week, there was a special prayer meeting on Wednesday evening.

Reverend ERIC BENTS: I think we all know why we're here today. We're here to pray primarily for the Supreme Court vacancy that's just been created by the resignation letter of Sandra Day O'Connor.

WERTHEIMER: That was Pastor Eric Bents leading the prayer meeting. On issues like abortion or school prayer, he thinks the court's decisions are more secular and less moral than the American people would like. Trinity has a day camp program and Paster Bents invited us to talk to Omaha parents dropping off kids early in the morning. As SUVs pulled up into the parking lot already baking in the early morning sun, we stopped Kevin Curtis who told us the president should listen to his voters.

Mr. KEVIN CURTIS (Parent): Well, he has to think about the support that he was given to be elected president of the United States and, you know, the commitments he made to the folks who voted for him then and see what their opinions are. And, I mean, that's certainly a very tough judgment to make.

WERTHEIMER: Kevin Curtis works for a pharmaceutical company. Cheryl Lagnowski(ph) is a physical therapist. She belongs to Trinity. She knows the church opposes abortion as does she but...

Ms. CHERYL LAGNOWSKI (Physical Therapist): For me personally, it would not be the bottom line. There are other issues that I would also want to look at and consider. One thing is how strict they are with criminals.

WERTHEIMER: Do you feel pretty confident about the decision that President Bush will make?

Ms. LAGNOWSKI: Yes, I like the decisions that President Bush has made. I'm glad that he's the one that's in office, and I, for the most part, trust his decisions.

WERTHEIMER: We left the day camp and headed for northeast Omaha and Gallagher Park to meet Bill Henry. He was a senior vice president of one of the country's largest private banks when he retired. Now wearing shorts and deeply tanned, he coaches kids at an inner-city swimming pool.

Mr. BILL HENRY: OK. Guys, all eyes up here. You're going to go back to free-style which is going to be nice and long till you get to the aluminum steel...

WERTHEIMER: As a former banker, Bill Henry's followed the court's decisions on regulating business but now he's worried about changing the laws on abortion.

Mr. HENRY: I have voted Republican in every presidential election since Barry Goldwater was defeated by Lyndon Johnson in 1964. I love our president. I support him. I disagree with him on what I think he's going to do in terms of a Supreme Court justice and I think if he in fact does support somebody that the religious right favors and if the Supreme Court overturns Roe vs. Wade, we're either going to go back to the way it was before which was a state's issue and even a worse scenario would be if it was outlawed altogether, because then we will go back to what it was in the '30s and the '40s which is quacks, illegals, and that's the worst thing that we can do.

WERTHEIMER: From there, down south to Sarpy County, a fast-growing suburban area. Offutt Air Force Base is there. There are cornfields around the town of Bellevue where the Sarpy County Chamber of Commerce had a lunchtime barbecue. Margaret White owns an amusement park. She only cares about one issue.

Ms. MARGARET WHITE (Amusement Park Owner): Pro-life. That's the only issue that I feel really strongly about. If they're pro-life, then that says a lot about how they will vote on issues.

WERTHEIMER: Many of the people that the president's considered and presidents have considered in the past have been reluctant to say how they would vote on anything, you know, just on the notion that a judge shouldn't prejudge an issue.

Ms. WHITE: If they can't come out and say that, then that just means they want to appeal to everyone and that commitment doesn't appeal to everyone.

WERTHEIMER: Taking an opposite view is Dan Flanagan. He's a Methodist minister in Papillion, Nebraska.

Reverend DAN FLANAGAN: First of all, they can't be a single-issue person which seems to be somebody's push, you know, that abortion, you know, get rid of Roe-Wade. That's not an issue for me, and I want somebody who's a fair jurist, one who looks at things from a legal perspective and is fair in terms of interpreting law and not with a particular agenda. And also one of the things I think is necessary if Sandra Day O'Connor's not going to be on there, we need more women.

WERTHEIMER: That view is shared by African-American businessman Cameron Thomas. He's a realtor. We met him and some friends at an Italian restaurant near his office back in Omaha.

Mr. CAMERON THOMAS (Realtor): The diversity that is so evident in America should be represented in our courts, should be represented in our businesses. I think it gives a more round voice. You know, having another woman on the court makes a lot of sense to me, too.

WERTHEIMER: Cameron Thomas' friend Dan Goodwin who works for eBay says flatly a good Christian is more important to him than a black candidate.

Mr. DAN GOODWIN (eBay): A good example is as everybody knows most blacks would not feel that Clarence Thomas represents their views, most blacks who say, `Well, we still don't have representation in the Supreme Court.' The important thing is that there is somebody that comes in not only with a different perspective than what's already there but also with the Christian perspective and that will stand for what's right. A human being that prays out of a sincere heart will get an answer from God.

WERTHEIMER: In the early evening as the day finally began to cool down, we went to a softball game out to Dill Field in Omaha where girls 12 and under from all over the area were playing the last fast-pitch softball games of the season.

(Soundbite of ball being hit)

WERTHEIMER: Mike Williams coaches a team from Papillion. He works for the United States Strategic Command at Offutt Air Force Base. He says the president should take the long view on this decision.

Mr. MIKE WILLIAMS (United States Strategic Command, Offutt Air Force Base): Not just for the next two or three years of his administration but what's going to benefit the country in the long run. I'm a registered Democrat but I would like to see somebody that can take and interpret constitutional law in a balanced way. I don't like to see it biased one way or the other. I think it should be a balanced representation of judicial thought.

WERTHEIMER: That seemed to be the bottom line for Omaha. Most of the people we met said something similar about balance, not bias, about thoughtful decision-making and commonsense.

Linda Wertheimer, NPR News.

MONTAGNE: This is NPR News.

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