Preparing for a Battle Supreme

Human Rights
Supreme Court Justice Sandra Day O'Connor's surprise retirement from the bench last Friday set in motion a high-stakes political battle that could last for months. Whoever is appointed to replace her could dramatically shift the court further to the right, especially when it comes to issues like abortion, affirmative action and civil liberties.

Amy Goodman of Democracy Now! spoke with Nan Aron, President of the Alliance for Justice; Sean Rushton, the Executive Director of the conservative Committee for Justice; and Karen Pearl, Interim President of Planned Parenthood, about the upcoming battle for the Supreme Court. What follows is an edited transcript of that conversation.

AMY GOODMAN: In 1981, O'Connor became the first woman appointed to the Supreme Court. She has been described as the most powerful woman in America and resigned at the age of 75. She was appointed by President Ronald Reagan and expected to toe the conservative line. She disappointed conservatives in the 1989 case Webster v. Reproductive Health Services. O'Connor was the deciding vote that upheld a law giving states the right to make specific abortion decisions, defying the conservative push for further restrictions on abortions.

The right to legal abortion is supported by six of the current justices, so it appears secure in the short term. With O'Connor's departure, it will probably take the resignation of only one of the court's four remaining moderate-to-liberal members to overturn Roe v Wade, the landmark 1973 decision that made abortion legal.

Bush stated on Friday night that he wants a dignified confirmation process. Speaking in Washington last Friday, he said, "The nation deserves, and I will select, a Supreme Court Justice that Americans can be proud of. The nation also deserves a dignified process of confirmation in the United States Senate, characterized by fair treatment, a fair hearing and fair vote."

But even though the nomination of a new Supreme Court Justice is at least a week away, the battle lines are already vividly drawn. Conservative groups are pressing for Bush to make good on his campaign promise of appointing someone in the mold of Clarence Thomas and Antonin Scalia, two of the most conservative members of the court. They have also vociferously opposed the selection of the frequently mentioned White House Attorney General, Alberto Gonzales, because they question his commitment to overturn abortion rights. Democrats are asking for an appointment in the mold of the more centrist O'Connor. This is a notable contrast from what many democrats felt about her in December of 2000, when she voted with the majority to end the Florida recount and give the presidency to Bush.

Nan Aron, what your plans now?

NAN ARON: All eyes are now on the White House. We are looking to President Bush to make a really historic decision. We're hoping that he picks someone in the mold of a Sandra Day O'Connor, a moderate, consensus and most importantly, independent justice for the Supreme Court. You know, when she was chosen in 1980, lawyers urged President Reagan, the most conservative president up until then, to choose her over the objections of radical right groups in this country. He made that choice, and she has served with distinction on the Supreme Court ...

SEAN RUSHTON: The President campaigned twice and also grew his majority in the Senate on the promise that he would appoint a court that would be less activist, that would involve itself less in decision-making that should really be left to the political branches of government. He cited Scalia and Thomas in that mold, and I think groups like Nan's said before the election that if Bush were to be re-elected, that it would be an opportunity for him to remake the court per his promises. And I think now that he has been re-elected and grown his majorities in the Senate, it's a good opportunity for him to keep that promise.

NAN ARON: President Bush could do is what Sean says he might do, which is to pick a nominee in the mold of Scalia and Thomas. Or to pick a nominee similar to his Court of Appeals judges, like Janice Rogers Brown, Priscilla Owen, William Pryor, but what he should do is to realize the very momentous decision he has to make, to realize that he governs a country that is extremely big, that is filled with people of divergent viewpoints, races, religions, and rise to the occasion, pick a nominee who can represent everyone in this country, and not simply one fringe part of the Republican Party. We're calling on him to name someone who respects individual rights, who appreciates the progress America has made, someone who can make decisions that protect all Americans, and not side with special, big business interests.

In addition to abortion rights, which are clearly critical issue in the upcoming hearings, there are also other issues at stake, as well. And I want to make sure that we focus on those, as well as on worker's rights, consumer protections, environmental protection, civil rights, women's rights. You know, the next court is going to make decisions that affect every aspect of our life, every aspect. Choice, whether or not we have privacy in our homes, whether or not we have safe workplaces, whether the water we drink is clean. So, in addition to choice, we need to make sure that the administration and in particular the nominee, is forthcoming on his or her views on a whole range of issues, including Roe v. Wade.

AMY GOODMAN: Sean Rushton, what is the issue your constituency feels most strongly about?

SEAN RUSHTON:I think, broadly, the idea, if you are just listening to the rhetoric of the two ladies, I think it's clear that it's a difference of vision, really, between a court that is limited, and it really is a judicial body, as opposed to a political and cultural body. Their view is that it should be this kind of great platonic guardianship that makes all sorts of decisions in American life. I think what the conservative view of the law is, which is by the way, I would say, not so much a political category as much as it is sort of one of jurisprudential philosophy, is that the court really should be confined to absolutely defending the rights that are in the Constitution. For example, I would cite property rights. That's something that's in the Constitution. We have just seen it eviscerated primarily by the liberal wing of the cout. Limiting the power of the court back to something that comports, I think, better, with our Constitutional system. That's the big issue overarching everything else.

AMY GOODMAN: Karen Pearl, what are your plans at a grassroots level?

KAREN PEARL: We are very excited about our plans. We obviously have been preparing for a long time for a Justice to step down, whether it was going to be the Chief Justice or, as it became, Justice O'Connor. And so, we have a plan in place for every stage of this process that relies on all of the work that we have done over these past few years in all 50 states to get our activists onboard and mobilized. And so, we have strategies for being literally in the communities doing rallies, for activists to be using the internet to communicate with their senators, we have days of action planned throughout the summer and into the fall. We have people who are checking the media in their local markets so that they can correct misinformation through letters to the editor or to op-eds.

So, we have got a number of strategies that involve people in our communities, our patients, our grassroots activists and our large number of people who hold very influential positions in the community all ready to go to do a number of different actions as this process goes on. We have already contacted over a million of our supporters. We have campus -- 170 campus chapters of students who are activists. And we have letters coming in, emails coming in. So everybody is in touch with the White House and with the Senate. And we believe that the voice for a moderate, thoughtful, deliberative, open-minded jurist, that message will come out loud and clear from Planned Parenthood supporters.

AMY GOODMAN: Sean Rushton, first can you explain how the Committee for Justice works as an umbrella for conservative groups and how it was established.

SEAN RUSHTON:We were created three years ago in response to the treatment of one of the President's appellate court nominees, Charles Pickering, who was disgracefully linked to defending the Ku Klux Klan and called sympathetic to racists and all the rest. So the feeling on the right was there wasn't a group that existed, sort of full-time, to counter the many groups that exist on the left to fight our nominees. So, we were created at that point. And we will do, I imagine, much of what was just described on the other side.

We're not a grassroots group, as such, so we will be sort of working with and helping those groups, whether they be, you know, tax -- anti-tax groups or anti-big government groups or business groups or social conservative groups, to put together their messages and to expand their grassroots networks out and to make clear why all of these diverse segments of the Senate right coalition are affected by this issue, and whether your issue is school choice or government regulation or social issues, that, yeah, that this is really a big fight and the other side sees it as for what it is, a no-holds-barred kind of a exercise, so we need to be ready.

AMY GOODMAN: How you are going to organize?

NAN ARON: Well, already these organizations are hiring organizers, doing communications work, getting messages out over the internet, getting hold of individuals who can talk to senators. The most important people in this effort will be those 100 senators. And we on the progressive side cannot just assume because President Bush won the election that we turn to electoral politics in two years. We have got to engage now in this effort to make sure that our judges are fair and independent, and so we all need to be working, calling people on our -- calling our people, putting people on our list, getting involved.

AMY GOODMAN: One of the people who has been mentioned as a possible candidate for Supreme Court Justice is Alberto Gonzales, Attorney General of the United States, who made a surprise trip to Iraq this weekend, While his name has been very much in the news because what many people say is laying the legal groundwork for the torture by saying the Geneva Conventions don't apply, when there are objections raised to him right now, interestingly from conservatives, it's that his position on abortion may not be tough enough. What is your understanding of Alberto Gonzales?

SEAN RUSHTON:My organization will support General Gonzales if he is the President's choice. It's as simple as that.

AMY GOODMAN: What do you think of him before he is named as the President's choice?

SEAN RUSHTON:I think he's a good man. I think we think he would be a fine addition to the court.

NAN ARON: Well, I'm sorry that Sean has said that. I think there's a lot about Alberto Gonzales that we don't know and the American people have a right to know. He was one of the chief architects of our policies on torture in the United States. I don't know that we really have a full understanding of his views on civil rights, women's rights, the right to choose. Our poll released last week shows American people want the Senate to conduct a broad, independent inquiry, and it will be up to Gonzales, if he is the nominee, and the administration to be forthcoming on these issues, as well as many others.

AMY GOODMAN: John Roberts is one of the names that has been put forward. He's also a friend of President Bush.

SEAN RUSHTON:He is a judge on the D.C. Circuit. He is regarded as a solid thinker, someone of a likable disposition, and a good constitutionalist. So I think he has a very good chance of being in the top tier of --

AMY GOODMAN: What does a "good constitutionalist" mean?

SEAN RUSHTON:It's really the distinction between the other side's view, which is that the court should act more as a political and cultural arbiter, handing down decisions that don't necessarily directly relate to the text of the Constitution versus the more conservative view, which is that the legislative process is where most new law should be made and that the courts really should be in the business of protecting the Constitution as it stands, and as it's written.

NAN ARON: It's important that the American people and particularly the Senate come to understand what John Roberts thinks and where he stands on the issues of the day. I do believe for any nominee, if that individual is hostile to individual rights, protections and freedoms in this country, we will call on the Senate to defeat that nominee. However, before we even get there, it is incumbent on the Senate to let the American people know who these nominees are and allow for the broadest possible hearing of scrutinizing aspects of the nominee's record. It is incredibly important given that this person will help shape the future of our country and our judiciary for decades to come.

AMY GOODMAN: What about the issue of the questioning? The New York Times raised this, for example, Arlen Specter, well known during the Bork confirmation process, questioning him for something like an hour and a half. What do you think should be the form of this hearing, and what is acceptable, and how can you put pressure on senators to actually raise the issues you care about? The democrats have not stood up very much. I mean, if you look at the examples of the invasion of Iraq, etc., the word standing up would not be one that would be first in thinking of.

NAN ARON: Well, you know, this is the most important domestic decision that President Bush will have made so far in his presidency. Poll after poll shows that the American people do not want the Senate to be a rubber stamp, that they want the senators to be able to understand who the nominee is and where he or she stands on many different issues. Therefore, it will be incumbent upon the Senate, and we are counting on Senator Specter, Chairman of the Judiciary Committee, to conduct a fair and thorough hearing so that these issues of temperament, judicial philosophy, Constitutional philosophy can be fully explored. After all, this person will sit on this court not just for the next two or three years but perhaps decades to come. And we all, as Americans, have a right to know what this person thinks and what this person will do once confirmed to the Court.

AMY GOODMAN: Sean Rushton, what senators can you absolutely trust, do you think you absolutely have in your court, and who needs to be worked on?

SEAN RUSHTON:That's a long list, I think. You know, well, let me mention a few senators, in particular. I think the senators that we're most interested in, aside from most of the republicans, I believe we are starting from the assumption that we have pretty much all of the republicans likely to support the President's nominee, but we're also interested in -- and this goes back to the issue of consultation, as well -- a reaching out to more moderate democrats, maybe Joe Lieberman, Bill Nelson of Florida. Those are democrats that I think will be more reasonable on this issue, who are not pushed by the liberal interest groups, to hatchet job the nominee, and, so, you know, there are about ten Senate democrats, at least, who I think are very open to reasonable debate.

AMY GOODMAN: What about the possibility of a filibuster?

NAN ARON: Many of the signatories to that deal have said that the filibuster lives and will be able to be applied in any forthcoming Supreme Court nominations. Certainly, though, if President Bush names an individual who would shift the ideological balance on the court to the right, placing in jeopardy individual rights and freedoms, we would fully expect there to be a fight. Maybe we don't even need the filibuster. You know, I have been talking about the role of the President and his momentous decision. This is also a decision that's going to be made by 100 Senators. And during Court of Appeals debates in this country, most people tend not to focus on the merits of a debate on a Court of Appeals nominee. Supreme Court is different. The nation's attention will be focused on who the nominee is and the very important seat for which that person is being nominated. American people will look at this, will study, will watch these hearings on TV. This will not be an easy vote cast by a senator. And we're also looking to these senators to think of this vote as perhaps the most important vote they will take, as well. Some of them are up next year, and their constituents will be looking very closely at what they say and what they do.

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