President Bush on Wednesday denounced advocacy groups on the left and right that seek to influence his choice of a Supreme Court nominee, and he insisted that he would not weigh candidates’ views on specific issues.
For the second time this week, the president expressed exasperation as groups that supported his reelection worked aggressively for favorite candidates and tried to undercut others. With Bush indicating that the selection process might take weeks, the lobbying could become intense.
In remarks to reporters in Denmark before he flew to Scotland for a summit of the leading industrialized nations, the president complained in particular about the denigration of Atty. Gen. Alberto R. Gonzales by some conservative groups.
Preparing for an anticipated fight in the Senate, the White House said that, at Bush’s request, former Sen. Fred Thompson would guide the nominee through the confirmation process.
In selecting Thompson, a Tennessee Republican and actor -- he is a lawyer by training whose most recent work has him playing a crusty veteran district attorney on NBC’s “Law and Order” -- Bush has chosen a celebrity whose experience with politically sensitive Senate hearings goes back to his days as a senior Republican staff member on the Senate Watergate Committee more than 30 years ago.
White House Press Secretary Scott McClellan said Thompson would have an informal role, much as former Sen. John C. Danforth, a Missouri Republican, guided Clarence Thomas to confirmation by the Senate in 1991.
Bush said he had just begun reviewing top candidates for the Supreme Court seat to be vacated by Justice Sandra Day O’Connor, who announced Friday that she would retire.
He said he resented that some groups were attacking Gonzales, who was widely reported even before the vacancy was announced to be on the president’s short list of candidates. Bush urged the Senate to join him in resisting pressure from outside organizations during the confirmation process.
“I hope the United States Senate conducts themselves in a way that brings dignity to the process, and that the senators don’t listen to the special interest groups, particularly those on the extremes that are trying to exploit this opportunity for not only ... what they think is right, but also for their own fundraising capabilities,” Bush said.
Bush did not identify the organizations he had in mind, but his admonition came in response to a question about criticism of Gonzales as a potential nominee.
In recent days, a number of conservative activists have signaled their opposition to Gonzales because they think he supports abortion rights. The critics include representatives of the conservative groups Focus on the Family and Judicial Confirmation Network.
During his confirmation hearing for attorney general earlier this year, Gonzales described the 1973 Roe vs. Wade decision that legalized abortion as the “law of the land” and he promised to enforce it.
“There is concern on the right [about a Gonzales nomination], there’s no doubt about it,” Jay Alan Sekulow, chief counsel for the American Center for Law and Justice, a conservative group that specializes in religious rights, said on CBS’ “Face the Nation.” But Bush urged the Senate on Wednesday to “not let these groups, these money-raising groups, these special interest groups, these groups outside the process, dictate the rhetoric, the tone” of the confirmation debate.
Many activists on both sides of the political spectrum view the Supreme Court vacancy as a turning point. The Supreme Court has become more conservative in recent years, but the nine justices have divided 5-4 on a number of key decisions. In several cases, O’Connor provided the swing vote.
Until O’Connor announced her retirement, it was widely assumed that the next court vacancy would be the seat occupied by Chief Justice William H. Rehnquist, who has thyroid cancer. Rehnquist, who is regarded as a judicial conservative, has said nothing to indicate that he intends to leave soon.
Many advocates and analysts were already predicting a fierce partisan battle over the next court nominee.
But some contend that O’Connor’s departure could provoke an even more contentious debate. That is because her successor could determine the outcome of rulings on issues considered critical to liberals and conservatives, including Roe vs. Wade.
Responding to U.S. reporters’ questions during an appearance with Danish Prime Minister Anders Fogh Rasmussen, Bush said he would not base his Supreme Court choice on a candidate’s position on abortion or gay marriage.
“There will be no litmus test,” he said. “I’ll pick people who, one, can do the job, people who are honest, people who are bright, and people who will strictly interpret the Constitution and not legislate from the bench.”
Bush said he was bothered by the attacks on Gonzales, a longtime friend. When Bush was governor of Texas, he appointed Gonzales to the Texas Supreme Court. After Bush became president, he chose Gonzales as his White House counsel, then nominated him for attorney general in his second term.
If nominated and confirmed to the Supreme Court, Gonzales would become its first Latino justice.
“I don’t like it when a friend gets criticized,” Bush said. “I’m loyal to my friends. And all of a sudden this fellow, who is a good public servant and a really fine person, is under fire.”
Sen. Harry Reid (D-Nev.), the minority leader, said in Las Vegas on Wednesday that he thought Gonzales was qualified to be a Supreme Court justice, but might not “have an easy way through” Senate confirmation.
Bush said he had begun reviewing the qualifications of prospective nominees aboard Air Force One on Tuesday’s flight from Andrews Air Force Base to Copenhagen.
“I’ve been reading about the different backgrounds and different opinions and different attitudes” of the candidates, Bush said. “As you know, I’m not a lawyer, thankfully. And so I will let my legal experts deal with the ramifications of legal opinions.... I’ll try to assess their character, their interests.”