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Activists Lack Allies in Battling Court Pick

Times Staff Writer

What happens when an army prepares for World War III -- and ends up in a border skirmish?

That question looms for liberal groups that have been collecting millions of dollars and preparing for years for a scorched-earth battle over President Bush’s first Supreme Court nominee.

But now that Bush has chosen John G. Roberts Jr., a respected jurist with bipartisan ties in Washington’s legal establishment, Senate Democrats do not seem as eager to go to war.

That means abortion rights advocates and other liberal groups lobbying against Roberts may first have to fire up their allies if they are to have any hope of blocking the nomination.

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The challenge facing the interest groups grew larger Thursday when several moderate Democrats said they had not seen anything in Roberts’ background to justify blocking him with a filibuster. The Democrats are part of the so-called Gang of 14, a bipartisan group that banded together this year to thwart a showdown over use of the filibuster against judicial nominees.

Some Senate Democrats say their low-key response to Roberts’ nomination results in part from the relatively thin record of information about his judicial philosophy, given that he has been an appeals court judge for only two years.

But it also reflects a calculation that Democrats would have more to lose than to gain by quickly opposing a nomination that so far appears hard to beat. Such a move would probably fuel Republicans’ efforts to portray Democrats as knee-jerk opponents of anything Bush wants.

“We’re not shying away,” said Jim Manley, spokesman for Senate Minority Leader Harry Reid of Nevada. “But we’re picking our shots.”

One senior Democratic strategist, who spoke on condition of anonymity, said some Democrats believed Roberts’ confirmation was a “foregone conclusion.” But that has not stopped liberal activists from battling as if it were a wide-open contest.

E-mail alerts have been sent around the country, fundraising appeals have been started and petitions are being circulated.

“The interest of the senators may be a little different from the [party’s] base,” said Guy Molyneux, a Democratic pollster. “Senators want to look as reasonable as possible. But if you get a lot of Democrats saying this guy is in, it’s over before the [Judiciary Committee] hearings, the base will be pretty unhappy.”

So far, no Democrat has said that publicly. But since Bush nominated Roberts on Tuesday, Democratic senators have been among those offering praise for the nominee’s intellect and credentials.

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Sen. Charles E. Schumer (D-N.Y.), a Democratic point man in the nomination fight, did not rule out the prospect that Roberts would win Democratic support. “You wouldn’t say automatically that he’ll be a nominee that no Democrat would vote for,” Schumer said.

Even some liberal groups -- including People for the American Way and Alliance for Justice -- have not announced opposition to Roberts, saying that they want to review his record more thoroughly.

Ralph G. Neas, president of People for the American Way, said his immediate goal was to keep senators from making an early commitment to Roberts. Neas’ message: “Wait till all the facts are in.”

But other liberal activists think they have plenty of facts and have been quick to draw their conclusions. Several abortion rights and women’s groups -- powerful constituencies within the Democratic Party -- said Roberts’ record was clear enough for them to offer full-throated opposition.

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Americans United for Separation of Church and State, another liberal group, is also criticizing Roberts.

“John Roberts has long been a faithful soldier in the right wing’s war on the Bill of Rights,” said Barry W. Lynn, executive director of the group. Lynn specifically criticized him for drafting a legal brief that defended prayer in public schools.

Moveon.org, the online liberal advocacy group, was among the first to announce its opposition to a nominee it called a “right-wing corporate lawyer.” Members are being urged to circulate and sign petitions calling on their senators to reject the nomination.

Liberal activists say they assume most Democratic senators will join them in opposing Roberts after more is known about his record.

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“That’s part of the process: Their job is to go through the hearings, ask the questions,” said Nancy Keenan, president of NARAL Pro-Choice America, an abortion rights advocacy group. “Our job is to make sure those senators are hearing from pro-choice Americans.”

But privately, a senior Democratic aide said, some activists were distressed that the initial Senate reaction was not as forceful as it had been against President Reagan’s nomination of Robert H. Bork to the court in 1987. Sen. Edward M. Kennedy (D-Mass.) immediately gave a scathing critique of the choice that is still remembered as his “Bork’s America” speech.

“There was no ‘John Roberts’ America’ speech, and some of the [interest] groups were upset about that,” said the senior aide, who spoke on condition of anonymity because he was not authorized to discuss party strategy.

A Kennedy aide said she knew of no such complaints.

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Reid, Schumer and other Democratic Senate leaders have kept in touch with activist groups to share information and get feedback.

A conference call was conducted Wednesday with women’s groups after they staged an anti-Roberts demonstration outside the Senate.

Kim Gandy, president of the National Organization for Women, said Schumer assured listeners that senators would grill Roberts thoroughly on women’s issues.

Democratic Senate leaders have urged their colleagues to “keep their powder dry” until more is known about Roberts’ record.

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The leaders have also asked the White House to turn over confidential memos Roberts wrote while he was in the solicitor general’s office -- a demand Republicans see as a ploy that would offer a reason for holding up the nomination if they did not get what they asked for.

That’s why conservative groups, which have also spent years arming for this battle, are taking nothing for granted. The Committee for Justice, a group supporting Bush and his nominee, is planning a campaign to criticize Democrats for expected efforts to drag out the confirmation process.

“Our troops are going to stay on alert status until confirmation occurs,” said Sean Rushton, executive director of the Committee for Justice.


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