Judicial nomination war escalates

Many Americans are more interested in the movies than in the inner workings of Congress, so when television producer Norman Lear set out to turn public opinion against a Republican plan to block Democrats from filibustering President Bush’s judicial nominees, Lear looked to the silver screen.

Clips from the climactic filibuster scene in “Mr. Smith Goes to Washington,” the 1939 classic starring Jimmy Stewart, feature prominently in a $5 million television advertising campaign being launched Wednesday by People for the American Way, a left-leaning advocacy group founded by Lear. The ad, which tells voters the country works best “when no one party holds absolute power,” also features a California firefighter, described as a Republican who has twice voted for President Bush. It is to run over the next two weeks in 18 states with GOP senators, including Alaska and South Carolina.

The ad is a centerpiece in a coordinated opposition effort by dozens of groups that advocate abortion rights, expanded civil liberties, stricter environmental regulations and the distinct separation between church and state. All say the rule change that Senate Majority Leader Bill Frist has threatened to use to shut down debate on judicial filibusters _ also known as the “nuclear option” or “constitutional option” _ could pave the way for an anti-abortion Supreme Court justice later this year, and generally put on the federal bench more conservative judges than those who now could clear confirmation hearings.

Conservative groups, meanwhile, are stepping up campaigns to encourage Republican senators to do what it takes to bring the president’s nominees to full votes. For weeks, activists have been calling, writing and visiting GOP senators and their staffs and pledging their support for the rule change.

The Family Research Council and Focus on the Family ran newspaper ads in the nation’s capital and in Senate Minority Leader Harry Reid’s state of Nevada accusing Democrats, led by Reid, of being obstructionist. Activists say discussions are under way about rallies and television ads.

“Numerous coalitions have been and are being formed. This is not one-sided,” said Lanier Swann, director of government relations for Concerned Women for America. “Both sides are very mobilized.”

The issue could come to a head next month, after lawmakers return from their spring recess.

In the interim, opponents are hoping to turn enough Republican senators against the move to deny Frist the 51 votes he needs to go forward. They’re going after senators who are undecided, or ones they believe they can sway because of their moderate ideologies, feelings about the deliberative nature of the Senate, or concerns about political repercussions when it comes time for re-election or perhaps campaigns for president.

Alliance for Justice plans a smaller campaign starting next week, with an animated ad that plays off the “Schoolhouse Rock” theme, on cable television stations, and ads on political blogs and some national newspapers’ Web sites.

Abortion rights activists are running telephone banks and letter-writing campaigns. In Minnesota, members of pro-choice NARAL are going door-to-door telling voters that conservative Supreme Court nominees could mean the end of protections under Roe v. Wade and urging them to pressure Republican Sen. Norm Coleman, who has indicated he would support party leaders if they sought to end filibusters on judicial nominees, to change his mind.

Otherwise, Tim Stanley, executive director of NARAL’s Minnesota chapter, said of Coleman, “That’s going to be a vote that will haunt him for the next four years including his re-election in 2008.”

Opponents also hope the public backlash over Congress’ handling of Terri Schiavo will make senators think twice about the controversial filibuster move. Polls show Americans overwhelmingly opposed emergency intervention to give federal courts new jurisdiction in the hopes of forcing the Florida woman’s doctors to reinsert her feeding tube against her husband’s wishes.

“What the public generally is most concerned about is abuse of power by any one party, and what happened that weekend I believe many people are interpreting as an abuse of power,” said Ralph Neas, president of Lear’s group. “The other thing is they’ve (Republicans) been saying the last several years is we should not have activist judges, and all of a sudden they’re giving more jurisdiction to the federal courts. They want federal courts to do whatever has to be done to further their partisan political interests.”

Frist and other Republican leaders have said they would prefer not to take the drastic measure of changing Senate rules to limit minority party debate, but that Democrats have pushed them to this point by using the threat of filibuster to block 10 of the president’s judicial nominees, which they say goes against the Senate’s advise and consent role.