View Full Version : War Rooms (and Chests) Ready for a Supreme Court Vacancy

06-19-05, 09:51 PM
War Rooms (and Chests) Ready for a Supreme Court Vacancy

Like hostile nations on the edge of apocalypse, Washington's political right and left are on code red over a Supreme Court vacancy that does not yet exist.

Conservative groups held a briefing last week at the National Press Club and promised to spend more than $20 million promoting whomever President Bush nominates to replace Chief Justice William H. Rehnquist, should the ailing chief justice retire at the end of the court's term in June, as many expect. The liberal group People for the American Way countered with the threat of its 45-computer war room on M Street and a coalition of 70 other groups to fight back.

Caught in the middle was the White House, which had its own war plan but would not say so publicly for fear of looking ghoulish. After all, the intentions of the 80-year-old chief justice, who has undergone radiation and chemotherapy treatments for thyroid cancer, remain mysterious.

Chief Justice Rehnquist returned in March after an absence of five months, now goes to work every day and has not told colleagues on the bench of his plans. He is believed not to have informed Mr. Bush, either. Confusing the speculation even more, the chief justice looked so fit at a Supreme Court lunch last week that Senator Arlen Specter, the Pennsylvania Republican who is chairman of the Senate Judiciary Committee, said in an interview afterward that he thought there was now a "good chance" Mr. Rehnquist would not retire this month.

"I am of the belief that total immersion in a tough job is good therapy," said Mr. Specter, who is himself receiving chemotherapy for Hodgkin's disease, a cancer of the lymphatic system.

Mr. Specter's remarks were echoed by Ralph G. Neas, the president of People for the American Way, which has been preparing to fight a Bush Supreme Court nominee for the last four years. "The odds are certainly in favor of a resignation, but I also know how much he loves the court," Mr. Neas said in an interview, before showing off his organization's waiting war room. "If the doctors give him a green light to work for another term, I think he'd do it in a minute."

Such talk has hardly slowed the drumbeat in the capital, where the atmosphere surrounding Supreme Court nominations has changed sharply since the day that William O. Douglas, nominated to the court in 1939, became impatient waiting outside the closed door of the Senate Judiciary Committee room and sent in a message asking if the panel had questions for him. It did not, and he was speedily confirmed.

Although nomination fights are not unusual - the Senate rejected more than a quarter of all Supreme Court nominees in the 19th century - it was not until the spectacles of the failed nomination of Robert H. Bork in 1987 and the Clarence Thomas-Anita Hill hearings in 1991 that they became all-out, multimillion-dollar campaigns. Both sides agree on one thing: the court has increasingly become the battleground for the nation's most polarizing issues, like abortion, affirmative action and gay rights.

At the White House, the plan is to run the campaign for Mr. Bush's Supreme Court nominee out of the office of Harriet Miers, the low-profile White House counsel, once described by Mr. Bush as "a pit bull in Size 6 shoes." Ms. Miers will get a heavy assist from the Office of Legal Policy at the Department of Justice, where the attorney general, Alberto R. Gonzales, has himself been widely mentioned as a candidate for the Supreme Court, although probably not for the first vacancy under Mr. Bush.

In the meantime, Republicans close to the preparations say that the White House has assembled research on some 20 Supreme Court candidates, with more intensive research on a handful of the most mentioned, all federal appellate judges and all conservative: J. Michael Luttig and J. Harvie Wilkinson III of Virginia, Michael W. McConnell of Colorado, John G. Roberts Jr. of the District of Columbia, Samuel A. Alito Jr. of New Jersey and Emilio M. Garza of Texas.The White House also plans mock hearings in which the nominee will field aggressive questions from a "murder board," or a phalanx of lawyers and administration officials playing senators on the Judiciary Committee. Such hearings were conducted for Mr. Thomas and have even been conducted for some of the current administration's appellate court nominees, like Mr. McConnell.

The White House plans to name a point person to manage the process and to create an additional war room on Capitol Hill, in the office of Vice President Dick Cheney, Mr. Specter or Senator John Cornyn, a member of the Judiciary Committee and a Texas Republican. Mr. Cornyn's name was recently floated by conservatives as a long-shot possibility for the court; last week he said that it might be better for Mr. Bush to announce his nominee in September and not leave the person "hanging out like a piņata for people to take a whack at during the month we're in recess."

Other Republicans discount that option and say that Mr. Bush will move swiftly to name a nominee once a vacancy is announced, when the White House will switch to all-out campaign mode. "There's nothing like a vacancy to focus the mind," said C. Boyden Gray, the White House counsel to Mr. Bush's father who was a principal strategist in the fight over Mr. Thomas's nomination. Mr. Gray, whose Committee for Justice has raised money to promote a Bush Supreme Court nominee, was at the briefing of conservatives at the press club, as was the group Progress for America, which pledged $18 million to the cause.

Liberal groups say they are particularly edgy this time around because Mr. Bush has said that he admires Justices Thomas and Antonin Scalia, two of the court's most ardent conservatives. They also say that the biggest fight will not be over a Rehnquist retirement, when the conservative chief justice is likely to be replaced with another conservative, but at the departure of one of the court's liberal members, like John Paul Stevens, or of one its swing voters, like Sandra Day O'Connor.

So Washington, which went through a similar Supreme Court code red alert in the spring of 2003 over talk of a retirement by Chief Justice Rehnquist or others, is awash in speculation. Does it mean anything that Ms. Miers has an appointment on Monday to see Senator Harry Reid of Nevada, the Democratic leader? Does Justice O'Connor's planned move into a new Washington apartment mean that she has no plans to retire to Arizona anytime soon?

Will Chief Justice Rehnquist announce his retirement on June 27? Or in September? Or in another year?

One thing is certain. "The rumors will exponentially increase every day until the Fourth of July," Mr. Gray said.

Lynette Clemetson contributed reporting for this article.