At Long Last, Maybe a Liberal
WASHINGTON (AP) _ Their nearly 20-year wait for a sympathetic Supreme Court nominee is almost over, but liberals are hardly euphoric. They say it could take years to undo a generation of conservative appointments.
Most liberal activists are keeping their expectations in check as President Clinton begins his search for a candidate to succeed retiring Justice Byron White.
The new justice is sure to be more progressive than the conservative White. But liberals say the most they hope for with one appointment is an end to what they view as erosion in areas ranging from gay, civil and abortion rights to church-state relations.
″This is a very important opportunity to begin restoring balance on the court, but it is going to take a number of years before we can remedy the harm of 12 years of ideologically driven Supreme Court appointments,″ said Dawn Johnsen, legal director of the National Abortion Rights Action League.
The only liberals on the court at this point are John Paul Stevens and Harry Blackmun, named by Republican presidents in 1975 and 1970, respectively. Clinton’s nomination will be the first by a Democrat in 25 years.
″There’s a whole country of individuals out there″ jamming the judicial pipeline, said George Kassouf, director of the judicial selection project for a liberal 28-member coalition called the Alliance for Justice.
All that Democratic talent-in-waiting at universities, courthouses, statehouses, legislatures and public interest groups, however, doesn’t guarantee that the newest justice will be liberal.
If he wants to bypass an ideological confirmation battle, Clinton could pick a moderate. But history is full of Supreme Court choices who confounded their choosers.
Blackmun and Stevens are two cases in point. Republican Dwight D. Eisenhower nominated William Brennan, who turned out to be a leading liberal. And Democrat John F. Kennedy was responsible for the conservative White.
″There are no guarantees. People can change once they’re on the court,″ said Arthur Kropp, president of People for the American Way, a constitutional liberties organization.
He and others are urging Clinton to abandon the recent practice of finding stealth nominees - relative unknowns without paper trails - in order to decrease the likelihood of surprises later on.
″You can pick a nominee who has a long career with some distinction and has got a record, something you can sink your teeth into,″ said Kassouf.
Senate Minority Leader Bob Dole warned Sunday against picking a ″liberal activist.″
″The bottom line ought to be somebody who will follow the Constitution, maybe a strict constructionist of the Constitution, and not some liberal activist who wants to ... in effect legislate on the Supreme Court,″ Dole, R- Kan., said on CNN’s ″Newsmaker Sunday″ program.
Aside from the usual requirements - stature, experience, ability - liberal advocacy groups say Clinton should look for people with demonstrated commitments to privacy and abortion rights, free speech, separation of church and state, civil rights, individual rights and equal protection under the law.
Some groups are going even further and urging Clinton to name a woman, preferably a minority woman, to a panel they consider the last frontier.
″There have been 204 years of Supreme Court justices, 106 justices confirmed, and only one a woman,″ said Deborah Ellis, legal director of the NOW Legal Defense and Education Fund. ″It’s not a question of political correctness. It’s a question of equal representation.″
Whoever Clinton picks, liberals are anticipating at least marginal shifts their way - particularly on civil rights and church-state issues, where the court is closely divided. On other issues, such as abortion and civil rights for gays, some say conservative opposition is too solid to crack with one new justice.
″It will take at least two appointments replacing conservatives before we see any discernible shift,″ said Gregory King, a spokesman for the Human Rights Campaign Fund, a gay political action committee.
Johnsen, the abortion-rights lawyer, noted that her side lost a recent abortion-clinic access case 6-3. She said a 5-4 decision upholding restrictions on abortion counseling - since voided by Clinton - would have been 6-3 if it had been considered by the current court lineup.
″Replacing one justice cannot make any immediate or dramatic change in how the court rules,″ Johnsen said. ″We are just so far behind.″