The Left's Supreme Effort

A coalition of liberal groups is gearing up for the mother of all high court battles

Close your eyes, and it feels like the run-up to the white-hot 2004 election. Liberal interest groups are mobilizing armies of activists, readying hard-hitting TV spots, and squeezing donors as they gird for battle with George W. Bush & Co. But the stakes in this Red-Blue struggle may be higher than a mere four-year Presidential term. What hangs in the balance is the future of the U.S. Supreme Court.

In 2004, Dems united under new fund-raising committees to best the GOP in campaign money and almost win the ground war in key states. Building on that experience, a loose-knit alliance of 75 civil rights, labor, and environmental groups is back in the war room -- coordinating strategy, leveraging ad buys, and trying to form a united front in the looming fight to keep hard-line conservatives off the high court.

The frail health of Chief Justice William H. Rehnquist and the advanced age of other justices make it likely that President Bush will soon have a chance to name several Supreme Court jurists. The liberal opposition's goal is to block any nominee who might upend the status quo on civil rights, abortion, privacy, environmental protection, and affirmative action. "We are ready to go head-to-head with the White House," says Wade J. Henderson, executive director of the Leadership Conference on Civil Rights and co-founder of the Coalition for a Fair & Independent Judiciary.


Lined up against the White House's judicial point men (BW-Apr. 25) are a handful of liberal warriors with nearly two decades of experience at the barricades. In 1987, Henderson, Nan Aron of the Alliance for Justice, Ralph G. Neas of People for the American Way (PFAW), and a few other current Coalition leaders spearheaded the campaign to deny former D.C. Court of Appeals Judge Robert Bork a seat on the Supreme Court. Their "Block Bork" blitz changed the face of confirmation politics by elevating character issues to the same level as judicial philosophy. The same players came together again four years ago to contest John Ashcroft's nomination to lead the Justice Dept. It lost that struggle but vowed to get better results the next time.

Fresh off a successful dress rehearsal -- the fight to preserve judicial filibusters in the Senate -- the Coalition is preparing for the big show. Liberals call the war ahead even more crucial than Bork or Ashcroft. Given the current court's penchant for 5-4 opinions, adding a strong conservative could tip the scales on issues from limiting abortion rights to curbing government's ability to regulate business. "With one more right-wing nominee, more than 100 Supreme Court precedents could be overturned," Neas thunders.

Taking a page from anti-tax crusader Grover G. Norquist, who brings capital conservatives together for strategy sessions under the aegis of his Wednesday Group, the libs have formed a cabal of their own. The "Friday Group" regularly spills out of Henderson's 10th-floor conference room on K Street. Represented are Establishment pillars such as the Sierra Club, the AFL-CIO, and the National Organization for Women. But much of the promise lies with dozens of smaller organizations, including disability-rights groups, the National Congress of American Indians, the National Council of Jewish Women, and a smattering of university Democratic clubs.

In addition, the Coalition has assembled a team of former Clinton Administration loyalists such as message-meister Joe Lockhart and claims to be able to mobilize tens of millions of activists in a moment. Yet for all of its efforts, the Coalition has little to show for the past four years, and the Supreme Court battle will be another uphill slog. Even the filibuster win was bittersweet since it cleared the path for three of the most-contested Bush nominees. One problem is that some of the Dems' top political players are so far sitting out the impending donnybrook over the courts. "A big fight over judges does not benefit Democrats or the country," says ex-Clinton consigliere Harold Ickes, an architect of the Demo crats' 2004 campaign. "We just look like obstructionists."

Yet if the Senate fight is any indication, the Coalition may be getting traction. The filibuster drive generated some 2 million phone calls to Capitol Hill, hundreds of thousands of letters to newspapers, and more than 1.5 million petition signatures. PFAW raised over $5 million, and MoveOn, the 3.4 million-member progressive Web organization, collected $1.3 million nearly overnight.

The Coalition is not above joining forces with the enemy when expedient. To preserve the filibuster, Henderson teamed up with economic conservative Stephen Moore to pen an opinion piece, and the Coalition enlisted the support of former GOP Senators Alan Simpson of Wyoming and Warren Rudman of New Hampshire. For the Main Event, the Coalition will try to peel off business backing by capitalizing on Corporate America's unease with the evangelical agenda.

"All parts of the Left benefit from stopping Republican judges," says the GOP's Norquist, "so it's the easiest thing for them to organize around." Easy to agitate, raise money, and make noise -- yes. Easy to prevail over the discipline of the Right? That's a different story.

By Lorraine Woellert, with Lee Walczak, in Washington

— With assistance by Lee Walczak

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