Douglas H. Ginsburg, President Reagan’s choice for the Supreme Court, withdrew his name from consideration Saturday, saying that any discussion of his views on the law and the high court had “been drowned out in the clamor” over the revelation that he smoked marijuana as a law school professor.
Ginsburg announced his decision--made under intense pressure from conservative senators--in a brief statement that expressed disdain for the uproar over his personal life but also contained a strong anti-drug message.
“The President and Mrs. Reagan deserve enormous credit for leading the fight against illegal drugs,” he said in a hastily arranged one-minute visit to the White House press room. “I hope that the young people of this country, including my own daughters, will learn from my mistake and heed their message.”
Reagan Praises Ginsburg
Reagan, in a written statement released by his staff, commended Ginsburg’s “selflessness and clear thinking” and said he would “move promptly” to name another nominee. Administration officials said a new candidate may be chosen by midweek. However, only a few weeks remain in this year’s congressional session, clearly not enough time to obtain Senate confirmation of a candidate this year, congressional aides said.
Speculation on a new nominee immediately centered on the two runners-up at the time of Ginsburg’s selection 10 days ago--federal appeals court judges Anthony M. Kennedy of Sacramento and William W. Wilkins Jr. of South Carolina. “I think it’s fair to say that those are the most likely . . . leading candidates,” said one senior White House official.
But Kennedy faces opposition from some hard-line conservatives that cost him the nomination last time, and Wilkins has critics within the Justice Department.
Many officials expressed sympathy for Ginsburg’s predicament but suggested that he made the right decision.
Atty. Gen. Edwin Meese III said that while he and Reagan were prepared to support Ginsburg, “it was made clear to him” that the controversy “would probably delay the (confirmation) process and would cause great embarrassment to the Administration.”
Senate Minority Leader Bob Dole (R-Kan.) called Ginsburg’s situation “unfortunate,” and added: “I urged the President to proceed with caution and to make certain the next nominee is asked all the right questions.”
The withdrawal of Ginsburg, whose conservative views made him the President’s choice to take up the nomination bid lost by defeated nominee Robert H. Bork on Oct. 23, was orchestrated by Senate Republicans and Administration officials while Reagan, spending the weekend at his Camp David retreat, remained removed from the process.
After being told by Education Secretary William J. Bennett, North Carolina Sen. Jesse Helms and other Reagan allies Friday night that the controversy over his marijuana use eight years ago had become an embarrassment to the President, Ginsburg called Reagan at 11:30 a.m. Saturday to tell him he wanted to step down. A senior White House official gave no indication that Reagan tried to talk him out of it.
Ginsburg, 41, was also the target of criticism for his relative lack of courtroom experience. He had been an appeals court judge for only a year and during his earlier tenure as an assistant attorney general for antitrust, he had spent less than half an hour in court. Conflict of interest questions had also arisen about his Justice Department involvement in a cable television industry case when he had stock in a cable television company.
In his statement, Ginsburg said he had been “looking forward to sharing with the American people my views about justice and about the role of the courts in our society. Unfortunately all of the attention has been focused on our personal lives and much of that on the events of many years ago.”
Will Continue as Judge
He said he plans to resume his career as a District of Columbia appeals court judge. He said he hopes to serve on the Circuit Court “for many years to come and to uphold the principles of our Constitution.”
Ginsburg’s abdication, which came before the nomination had even been officially sent to the Senate, apparently spared the Administration yet another contentious confirmation fight but still left a deep scar on Reagan’s presidency.
The stinging embarrassment of another failed nomination so soon after Bork’s Senate rejection tends to reinforce an impression among his detractors that Reagan is weakened and increasingly ineffectual as he approaches the final year of his term. It also underscores sharp criticism, stemming from the Iran-Contra affair, that Reagan is not sufficiently attentive to some executive branch decisions and is susceptible to bad counsel from his advisers.
He picked Ginsburg--over the opposition of White House Chief of Staff Howard H. Baker Jr.--upon the recommendation of Atty. Gen. Edwin Meese III, and after less than 20 minutes of discussion, sources have said.
Meese, in a press conference, insisted that he is not solely to blame for the ill-fated nomination. “I don’t know why it would be my fault,” he said. “Certainly I take as much responsibility as I’m sure my colleagues Howard Baker and others would because this is something we didn’t know when we presented it to the President.”
The Justice Department review of Ginsburg had turned up no indication of his occasional marijuana use when he was a law professor at Harvard University--a fact disclosed to the news media last week by some of his former associates.
Ginsburg’s withdrawal made him the 29th high court appointee to step down or be rejected in the 198-year history of the high court. But Ginsburg’s nomination is the first to be taken back as the result of personal characteristics or private behavior. His withdrawal comes near the end of a year when the private lives of public figures have been placed under new scrutiny that has damaged several political careers.
“It’s part of the FBI mentality. We’re going to have to find either saints or liars” for senior public positions, said Stephen Hess, a senior fellow in government studies at the Brookings Institution.
The acknowledgement by Ginsburg Thursday, after receiving news media inquiries, that he had used marijuana in the 1960s as a Cornell University student and as late as 1979 as a Harvard faculty member immediately plunged the Administration into another maelstrom in what has already been tumultuous year.
This debacle, following the Iran-Contra investigation, personnel turnover and political defeats in Congress, was especially humiliating because of the emphasis the White House has put on its war on drugs, with First Lady Nancy Reagan personally leading the campaign. In choosing Ginsburg, Reagan had touted him as judge with a strong stance against crime, despite his lack of experience in criminal law.
On Saturday, some leading conservatives were seething. The Administration now can reap no “political benefit” from its anti-drug campaign, complained one bitter conservative. By initially defending Ginsburg, “Ronald Reagan and Ed Meese have given a blanket amnesty to anyone who has ever tried marijuana,” he said. On Friday, Reagan had vowed to press the nomination and discounted Ginsburg’s past marijuana use as a youthful indiscretion.
By Saturday, one senior White House official said, it had become apparent that “we would never get beyond that issue.”
“It’s just wrong for an Administration that has made such a big thing of the drug issue to put someone on the Supreme Court who admitted he broke the law,” he said.
With Ginsburg’s chances for confirmation in grave doubt, Republican leaders began to push for a quick withdrawal. They were spurred by concern that with so little time left in Reagan’s term, he could lose the chance to give the court a conservative tilt for many years to come by filling the seat vacated by the retirement of Justice Lewis F. Powell Jr.
“We’re just anxious to get the vacancy filled before our time’s up,” said one White House official, citing the pressures that will build on the Senate in 1988, a presidential election year.
After calling Reagan at Camp David, Ginsburg came to the White House at about 2:30 p.m. and met with Deputy White House Chief of Staff Kenneth M. Duberstein, White House Counsel A. B. Culvahouse and White House spokesman Marlin Fitzwater. A grim-faced Ginsburg then stepped to the press room microphones, read his eight-sentence statement in an even, virtual monotone and walked away without answering questions.
An Administration official, speaking on the condition of anonymity, insisted that no White House official had pressured Ginsburg to withdraw. He also sought to discount suggestions that Bennett, in calling Ginsburg Friday to urge his withdrawal, was representing the White House’s wishes and that his call was a key factor in the judge’s decision.
According to this account, Ginsburg acted primarily in response to pressure from dozens of members of Congress, including some strong conservative allies and some members of the Senate Judiciary Committee, the panel that would review his nomination.
Republican lawmakers began making their concerns known after a Friday morning meeting with Reagan on budget strategy. “There was nothing said in the meeting, but some of them gave us their private concerns later,” the White House official said.