President Obama began interviewing potential Supreme Court nominees even as conservatives and Republicans were sending strong signals to expect a contentious confirmation fight.
The conservative Judicial Confirmation Network held a nationwide conference call of supporters on May 18 to release three new Internet ads directed against the three presumed frontrunners for the seat of retiring Justice David H. Souter. Introducing the ads, Wendy Long, the group’s general counsel, described Solicitor General Elena Kagan, Seventh Circuit Judge Diane Wood, and Second Circuit Judge Sonia Sotomayor as “left-wing ideologues.” The ads attack Kagan for “kick[ing] the military off campus, incredibly, during a time of war,” Wood for ruling that “peaceful abortion demonstrators should be punished under the same law that applies to mob bosses,” and Sotomayor for not giving “a fair shake to fire fighters deprived of promotion on account of their race.”
A day earlier, the New York Times and Washington Post both reported on conservative groups’ strategy memos acknowledging plans to use opposition to Obama’s nominee to rally their base and help unify the beleaguered Republican Party. As the Times reported, most conservative organizations are resigned to the likelihood of Senate confirmation of Obama’s eventual nominee by a sizable majority, but see the fight as an opportunity to develop a strong conservative message. “It’s a massive teaching moment for America,” veteran conservative fundraiser Richard Viguerie told The Times. In the Post, conservative organizers were described as planning to use the familiar issue of abortion and the more recent issue of gay marriage as litmus tests to judge Obama’s nominee.
Three days later, veteran Republican operative Ed Gillespie, who helped guide two Supreme Court confirmations for President George W. Bush, called in an op-ed in the Post for GOP senators to match Democrats’ tactics in opposing Chief Justice John G. Roberts Jr. and Justice Samuel A. Alito Jr. Instead of simply judging legal qualifications, Gillespie said Republicans should feel free to vote against a nominee who embraces “empathetic activism on the bench.”
The White House, meanwhile, is preparing for the confirmation battle by moving Stephanie Cutter, who guided the Democrats’ strategy on the Roberts and Alito nominations, from a Treasury Department post into 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue. “Moving Cutter shows how seriously we are taking this pick and its rollout,” an unnamed aide told Politico.
Obama himself began the interview process with a White House meeting with Wood on Tuesday (May 19). Wood was in Washington for a conference on judicial independence sponsored by retired Supreme Court Justice Sandra Day O’Connor. In reporting the interview, the Times noted that Obama would have time for additional interviews while spending Memorial Day weekend at Camp David. (The Times later confirmed that a second finalist has also been interviewed.)
The Times also continued profiling other frontrunners for the vacancy, with largely positive portraits of Kagan and Carlos Moreno, the California Supreme Court justice who has figured in some speculation as a dark-horse contender. Meanwhile, Jeffrey Rosen, the New Republic legal affairs editor who drew criticism for an unfavorable piece on Sotomayor, heaped warm praise on Wood for what he called her “moderate liberalism and judicial temperament.”
On the left, People for the American Way countered the conservatives with an extended critique of what the group called the conservatives’ “dishonest, discredited attacks.”
Obama is widely expected to announce his selection before the end of the month.