Sunday, December 25, 2005

Liberal Groups Gear Up to Oppose Confirmation of Alito

Campaign Includes Forums on His Record

By Michael A. Fletcher and Thomas B. Edsall
Washington Post Staff Writers
Sunday, December 25, 2005; A08

Liberal advocacy groups are stepping up their campaign against Supreme Court nominee Samuel A. Alito Jr., hoping an all-out effort before Senate hearings begin next month can slow what so far has been strong momentum favoring his confirmation.

A coalition of organizations opposing Alito has in recent weeks established a campaign-style operation to coordinate activities, including issues forums to explain his judicial record and ad buys in key states. The effort is aimed at bringing the simmering opposition to Alito to a boil, in time for Senate Judiciary Committee hearings that start Jan. 9.

Some liberal organizations waited only minutes to announce their opposition to Alito after President Bush nominated him in October. Since then, dozens of other organizations -- including environmental, civil rights, gay rights and disability advocacy groups -- have come out against the nomination.

Some have produced detailed reports sounding the alarm about Alito's judicial opinions. These include opinions espousing a narrow view of the federal power to regulate state activities and making it harder for workers to bring federal discrimination complaints against employers.

Critics are also distressed about his writings while he was a Justice Department official in the 1980s, in which he asserted his opposition to "racial quotas" and said that the Constitution does not protect a right to abortion.

The liberal protests have yet to coalesce into widespread opposition to Alito among the public and in the only place that ultimately matters: the U.S. Senate. Although several Democratic and moderate Republican senators have voiced reservations, most have adopted a wait-and-see attitude toward Alito's nomination. Many conservatives, meanwhile, have come out in favor of his confirmation.

Although Alito's positions have animated left-leaning advocacy groups, "they have created no firestorm among the general public," said David J. Garrow, a Supreme Court historian. "Liberal groups have cried wolf so many times that when we get documents like these about Alito, crying wolf seems to have no resonance for people in the middle."

A recent Washington Post-ABC News poll concluded that Americans favoring Alito's nomination became a majority -- at 54 percent -- last month. But it also found that 28 percent of the public oppose him, while one in five respondents said they knew too little about him to have an opinion.

Organizations on both sides are working to fill that void. While numerous conservative groups are working to define Alito as a seasoned and respected jurist who faithfully interprets the Constitution, liberal advocates are portraying him as an extremist who would overturn the constitutional right to abortion, weaken gun-control laws, reverse civil rights gains, and support strong executive powers, including the right to intrude on the privacy of U.S. citizens.

The fact that these arguments have gained only modest traction so far is attributed by some analysts to the unique political dynamics of Supreme Court nominations.

"There is really nobody to communicate with right now on this issue, because Americans are not plugged into it." said Evan Tracey of TNS Media Intelligence, a research firm that tracks political advocacy ads. "I think Americans feel one or two steps removed from the Supreme Court, particularly when the confirmation process hasn't started. But as you get closer to the hearing and the vote, the volume on this thing is going to ramp way up."

Democratic fundraiser Frank O'Brien of O'Brien, McConnell & Pearson Inc. said fundraising to fight the Alito nomination and support other liberal causes had been shoved to the back burner recently because of the more urgent concern on the left with issues such as oil, the USA Patriot Act and the Bush administration's domestic spying.

O'Brien said, however, that the recent addition of national security and wiretapping issues to the catalogue of liberal concerns about Alito "pushes the stakes so much higher -- it's the kind of issue that gets to these progressive donors in a special way." He described the potential for anti-Alito fundraising in the coming weeks as "huge," with privacy issues tapping into "a very powerful fear that will drive a lot of progressive energy."

"It takes it to a whole new level," he said.

Liberal activists say they are methodically building their campaign and are satisfied with knowing that many senators remain uncommitted. "Momentum is building in opposition," said Nan Aron, president of the Alliance for Justice, which opposes Alito.

One operative working with the operation run by IndependentCourt.org, a coalition of liberal groups, likened the campaign to a football game, in which yardage is gained in increments. "This is an inches game," she said. "We're gaining ground on this inch by inch."

Although some commentators had predicted that the public battle over the Supreme Court would take on the dimensions of a presidential campaign with its ad intensity, that has yet to occur with the Alito nomination.

Groups on both sides have spent just under $650,000, according to a new report by the nonpartisan Justice at Stake Campaign. Most of that money -- 54 percent -- has been spent by conservative groups, although liberal groups have been closing the gap lately with ad buys in Rhode Island and Maine, the report said.

Bert Brandenburg, executive director of the Justice at Stake Campaign, said that though advocacy groups are hugely influential, they are most powerful when they can build on perceptions that are already widely held among the public. "The groups look for opportunities to sway the debate, but they can't do it on their own," he said. "It will take the right environment for them to have an impact."

Brandenburg said the hearings could provide such an opportunity to rally supporters and pressure senators. "The real public campaign hasn't begun yet because few people are focused on this right now," he said. "It is clear that big guns have not been fired."

© 2005 The Washington Post Company
 
We want to know where he stands on individual rights, like as to privacy, and separation and balance of powers in the government..
 
 

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