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Judicial Activists Redeploy Efforts

After months of hype, fundraising and research for an anticipated battle over a Supreme Court vacancy, conservative and liberal activist groups are retooling their campaigns for the summer and fall.

The activists went back to the drawing board last week when none of the nine justices signaled an intention to retire when the 2002-2003 term ended June 26.

The Committee for Justice, for example, is getting set to unleash a new television ad campaign supporting U.S. District Judge Charles Pickering’s bid for a circuit court seat, as well as a hard-hitting newspaper ad campaign supporting two other circuit nominees facing potential Democratic filibusters.

NARAL Pro-Choice America is considering expanding a multimillion-dollar ad campaign that began in mid-June beyond four media markets currently being hit with ads. And other members of the liberal coalition opposed to President Bush’s nominees are continuing their research and memos on circuit court nominees, citing last week’s narrow victories for their issues at the Supreme Court as rejuvenating their efforts.

While the Supreme Court vacancy never occurred, the interest groups in no way feel their preparation work went for naught. The Committee for Justice’s top staffer compared the past two months to “doing a fire drill.”

The group, founded by allies of Bush, is better financed and organized and is more connected to other conservative groups because of the groundwork it laid in anticipation of a court vacancy, said Sean Rushton, the committee’s executive director. “We have more money and more channels to people with money,” Rushton said.

The committee’s Supreme Court campaign was set to formally kick off June 27, the day after the high court’s last opinion was released and retirements were expected to be announced. Bush’s nephew, George P. Bush, was the headline speaker at an event that was part fundraiser and part rally, held in the offices of the American Council of Life Insurers at 101 Constitution Ave. NW with a glamorous view overlooking the West Lawn of the Capitol.

Roughly 400 people attended the $25-ticket event, the overwhelming majority being young Republicans there to see the telegenic presidential nephew speak.

While Rushton said it was a “break-even” fundraiser, the event had eight corporate sponsors that paid at least $2,000, including ACLI, the American Trucking Association and FedEx Corp. Joe Allbaugh, the campaign manager for Bush’s successful White House bid, and his wife, Diane, counsel at the lobbying powerhouse Barbour Griffith & Rogers Inc., also paid $2,000 to sponsor a table.

The so-called “first nephew,” who graduated from the University of Texas School of Law in May and is studying for the Lone Star State’s bar, said Diane Allbaugh encouraged him to help with the Committee for Justice’s work, educating him on the Senate Democrats’ filibuster tactics on judicial nominations. “It really raised the ire of my soul,” George P. Bush said in a brief interview.

Anticipating a Supreme Court vacancy and a potential filibuster of the White House nominee, the Committee for Justice dubbed the party the “filibuster buster.”

For now, though, those efforts will focus on breaking the circuit court filibusters of nominees such as Miguel Estrada and Texas Supreme Court Justice Priscilla Owen. Two other circuit court nominees, California state Judge Carolyn Kuhl and Alabama Attorney General William Pryor, have been approved by the Senate Judiciary Committee and could soon face Democratic filibusters on a floor fight.

“There are a lot of other fights out there that need to be resolved, brought to a head and resolved,” Rushton said. “Our energy is devoted to continuing to challenge the filibuster.”

One plan calls for the committee to sponsor ads attacking Democrats for an anti-Catholic bias in their opposition to Pryor and Kuhl, both of whom are Catholic. “Catholics need not apply,” Rushton suggested the ads would read.

The Pickering media campaign is still undetermined in terms of timing, given the uncertainty of when the nominee would get a hearing. Judiciary Chairman Orrin Hatch (R-Utah) said before the July Fourth recess that he hoped to hold hearings in July, and other sources indicated that Judge Pickering’s hearing would come this month if there was no Supreme Court vacancy.

If the nomination does come up later this month, the committee expects to be on the air with ads, mostly in Southern states with Democratic Senators. “We have some ideas, we have a plan for an ad,” Rushton said.

Ralph Neas, president of People for the American Way, said the run-up to this year’s nonvacancy helped build a stronger grassroots infrastructure for his group and the entire liberal coalition. The coalition’s weekly meeting of top members, held last week at the D.C. headquarters of the Leadership Conference on Civil Rights, had a feeling of “relief and jubilation” because of the court’s rulings upholding affirmative action and homosexuals’ right to privacy, Neas said.

But, considering the key rulings in both cases were 5-4, Neas said the court played right into the message that the coalition has been delivering for two years, that one or two new conservative justices would tip the balance of the court. “What happened last week was totally on our message,” he said in an interview Friday.

Neas strongly hinted that his group will be on the air shortly with an ad to boost those Senate Democrats supporting the filibusters. “We definitely have been looking at the idea,” he said. “All those options are being considered.”

Kate Michelman, president of NARAL, said that, in addition to expanding her group’s ongoing ad campaign, a new line of attack would be the strong dissenting opinion by Justice Antonin Scalia in the homosexual privacy case, which had support from Justice Clarence Thomas and Chief Justice William Rehnquist.

“We continue apace. We continue without a break at all,” she said.

NARAL, Planned Parenthood Federation of America and seven other abortion-rights groups have established a Joint Emergency Campaign to work specifically on judicial nominations, particularly Supreme Court battles. While the groups initially told Roll Call that the campaign was its own organization, it’s an informal fund with each group pledging to put a certain amount of dollars into the effort. Initially, the campaign had $5.5 million 18 months ago, but no vacancy occurred in the summer of 2002 so some money was spent on circuit court fights.

Now, with no vacancy this summer, the Joint Emergency Campaign is expected to continue the fight on circuit courts and preparing for an eventual Supreme Court battle.

Conservatives have long alleged that the left-wing groups are better organized and better funded on the nominations battle, which was the driving reason behind the founding of the Committee for Justice.

And earlier this year, leading Senate Republicans made a pitch to business interests — which have traditionally stayed on the sidelines in federal court fights — to get involved financially in the fight. Their efforts have paid some dividends.

Ed Rogers, partner at the Barbour Griffith & Rogers lobbying firm, has been a major sponsor of the group, founded by C. Boyden Gray, the White House counsel in President George H.W. Bush’s administration. Rogers and his wife, Edwina, bought a table in their own name at the George P. Bush fundraiser June 27, and the firm itself also bought a table.

Another major lobbying firm came through in the effort, Timmons and Co., with three of its lobbyists joining the 45-member host committee for the night, paying at least $250 to fund the evening.

In addition to the ACLI table, the association’s president, former Oklahoma Gov. Frank Keating (R), also put up $2,000 to be a corporate sponsor.

“Everybody has been focused on one thing, and that thing has been delayed for a while,” Rushton said of the Supreme Court’s nonvacancy. Final decisions on where their resources will go next are in the offing.

“Starting [this] week, we’re really going to focus on where to spend the money,” he said.

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