With President Obama expected to nominate a federal judge to the Supreme Court this week, a coalition of conservative groups is digging through the backgrounds of potential candidates and developing a strategy to portray the nominee as a liberal who would upset the balance of the court.
Groups on the right started an ad campaign soon after the death of Justice Antonin Scalia on Feb. 13, targeting states with key Senate races with the message to “let the people decide” — that voters should choose the direction of the high court by electing the next president to fill the vacancy.
Conservative operatives say the battle will only intensify after Mr. Obama announces a nominee, and they expect to wage their multimillion-dollar effort through the November election.
“This is going to be a substantial fight,” said Carrie Severino, head of the Judicial Crisis Network and a former law clerk to Justice Clarence Thomas. “We have a lot of resources we need to do this job.”
Their goal, she said, will be to convince voters that “this is going to be someone who would move the court in a direction that most American people are not comfortable with.”
“Now you could have five votes [on the court] to run the table on any liberal agenda item,” Ms. Severino said.
Mr. Obama is said to have narrowed his “short list” to three candidates: Chief Judge Merrick Garland, 63, of the U.S. Court of Appeals for the District of Columbia Circuit; Sri Srinivasan, 49, a judge on the same court; and Paul Watford, 48, a judge on the California-based U.S. Court of Appeals for the 9th Circuit.
Representatives of dozens of conservative groups met at the Capitol on March 2 with Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell of Kentucky and Senate Judiciary Committee Chairman Chuck Grassley of Iowa, who are vowing not to hold hearings on any nominee. Among the groups represented were the National Right to Life Committee, the National Rifle Association and Heritage Action.
Mr. Grassley made an impassioned pitch that stopping the nomination in an election year is the right thing to do, attendees said, and both senators urged the conservative groups to stay vigilant in the weeks ahead.
“It was trying to make sure that all the groups knew how important it was to them, and it was an opportunity for the coalition groups to talk so we know we’re on the same page,” Ms. Severino said.
As part of the effort, the Judicial Crisis Network has hired the America Rising, the political action committee launched by Mitt Romney’s former campaign manager, to conduct research into the backgrounds of the potential nominees, including studying the written judicial rulings of Federal Appeals Court Judges Srinivasan, Garland and Watford, as well as Judge Jane Kelly of the 8th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals and U.S. District Judge Ketanji Brown Jackson, who serves in the District of Columbia.
Some of the opposition research already is being released publicly. For example, Judge Kelly, a Harvard Law School classmate of Mr. Obama, is being criticized for getting a lenient plea deal for a child predator while she served as a federal public defender.
The Judicial Crisis Network launched a $250,000 ad campaign Friday aimed at weakening support for Judge Kelly among moderate Democrats, assailing her for saying her child molester client “wasn’t a threat to society.”
“That client was found with more than 1,000 files of child pornography and later convicted for murdering and molesting a 5-year-old girl from Iowa,” the narrator states. “Not a threat to society? Tell your senator, Jane Kelly doesn’t belong on the Supreme Court.”
Judge Srinivasan, who was confirmed by a Senate vote of 97-0 in 2013 for the appeals court seat, is being scrutinized for rulings that purport to show he is not a “moderate,” such as his decision not to grant emergency relief to power companies seeking to halt the administration’s Clean Power Plan. The Supreme Court later granted a stay of the program.
As conservatives gear up for the fight, the White House is working with liberal groups to pressure senators to allow a vote on the nominee. On Friday, civil rights leaders in Georgia held a conference call with reporters to urge Republican Sens. David Perdue and Johnny Isakson to give Mr. Obama’s nominee a fair hearing.
Francys Johnson, president of the Georgia NAACP, said racism will be to blame if Republicans block Mr. Obama’s nominee.
“But for the politics and but for the bigotry that has been aimed at this president, to try to delegitimize this president, we would not be having this conversation,” she said. “The NAACP is keenly aware that upon Thurgood Marshall’s retirement, the president of the United States [Republican George H.W. Bush in 1990] had no problem nominating Clarence Thomas. We believe that the president should nominate someone and that the Senate should uphold the Constitution that it claims to hold so dear.”
Mr. Obama said Thursday that he intends to choose a nominee soon.
“I think it’s important for me to nominate a Supreme Court nominee quickly because I think it’s important for the Supreme Court to have its full complement of justices,” the president said. “I want somebody who is an outstanding jurist, who has impeccable legal credentials, who, by historical standards, would not even be questioned as qualified for the Court. Obviously, it’s somebody who I want to make sure follows the Constitution.”
Conservatives say that Mr. Obama’s previous nominees to the Supreme Court — Justices Sonia Sotomayor and Elena Kagan — prove that the president won’t choose a moderate this time around. The aim of conservative groups will be to portray the nominee as a liberal who would change the high court’s makeup significantly.
“We have the empirical record,” Ms. Severino said, adding that Justices Sotomayor and Kagan “vote absolutely in lock step with the liberal wing of the court.”
“It would be a solid five votes for a liberal agenda, be it gutting the Second Amendment, rolling back the First Amendment right to political speech, unleashing the EPA or the IRS to increase their bureaucratic control over every aspect of American life, pushing back on abortion, maybe repealing the partial-birth abortion decision — there’s an incredible liberal agenda the court could engage in if we had a fifth vote,” she said. “The prospect of switching Scalia’s vote in particular to a rock-solid liberal that the president would pick really brings it all into focus. Switching that vote would be a disaster.”
Sen. Ron Johnson of Wisconsin, another Republican on the Judiciary Committee, said last week that Senate Republicans might be allowing a confirmation hearing if a Republican were sitting in the White House.
“It’s a different situation,” Mr. Johnson said in a radio interview. “Generally, and this is the way it works out politically, if you’re replacing — if a conservative president’s replacing a conservative justice, there’s a little more accommodation to it.”
He added, “But when you’re talking about a conservative justice now being replaced by a liberal president who would literally flip the court — you know, let’s face it, I don’t think anybody’s under any illusion — President Obama’s nominee would flip the court from a 5-4 conservative- to a 5-4 liberal-controlled court. And that’s the concern is that our Second Amendment rights to keep and bear arms, our First Amendment rights to free speech and religious liberty, will be threatened.”
Democrats, including the White House, accused Mr. Johnson and his Republican colleagues of hypocrisy.
“Republicans are vowing to rough up the president’s nominee without considering his or her credentials or character,” White House press secretary Josh Earnest said Friday. “Republicans are acknowledging that they’re only doing this because President Obama is a Democrat and that they would not be doing this if the president of the United States were a Republican. And they’re acknowledging that there’s no precedent for them to act this way.”
Meanwhile, the Senate Majority PAC, backing Democrats, is putting pressure on incumbent Republicans. The group has launched a New Hampshire TV ad accusing Sen. Kelly Ayotte, New Hampshire Republican, in a competitive re-election race, of “ignoring the Constitution, not doing her job.”
The Citizens United group, which opposes the Supreme Court decision that allowed unlimited campaign spending by corporations and unions, has aired commercials pressing Ms. Ayotte and Sen. Roy Blunt, Missouri Republican, to consider a nominee.
Also, a group of 21 Democratic state attorneys general wrote a letter to Senate leaders last week warning them not to “undermine the rule of law.”
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