The day after Souter announced his retirement, conservative fundraiser Dan Morgan laid out the game to Jonathan Allen of Congressional Quarterly, “This is a nuclear weapon for the conservatives out there. When you do fundraising, there is an emotional component in this. And boy, the emotion is there magnified times 100. The Supreme Court is great. That`s going to be mail. That`s going to phone calls. The clients I work with are in meetings already. There are letters being written already.”
That explains quite a bit. Because if you take a step back from all the angry noise on cable news about Supreme Court nominee Sonia Sotomayor, you realize that all of the conservatives directing outrage her way don’t really seem to have tons of representation in Congress. Aside from the occasional backdoor insult from conservative senators like James Inhofe (R-OK) and Jeff Sessions (R-AL), the response from the GOP has ranged from modest skepticism to modest congratulations.
There are a lot of reasons for that, but, breaking it down to its simplest components, Sotomayor is a qualified and politically sympathetic figure; there’s no clear precedent for killing her nomination, and there’s just about nothing to gain–and much to lose–by attacking her.
But the calculus is different if you work in the conservative movement. By ginning up controversy where none exists, these activists get free press and free money and a micro-movement with which to corral fellow travelers into common cause. But who are they? Below, a rundown of some of the key players.
Wendy Long: Long is counsel to the Judicial Confirmation Network–the group we caught yesterday sending something of a mixed message about Obama’s nominee. On the one hand, JCN says Sotomayor is a travesty. On the other, they still trumpet their Alito confirmation-era insistence that Supreme Court nominees receive an up-or-down vote in the Senate on their website. Odd. Anyhow, Long once clerked for Supreme Court Justice Clarence Thomas. She and her group have run a full-on campaign against many of Obama’s potential nominees since Justice Souter announced his retirement. When the Sotomayor news broke yesterday, Long said “Judge Sotomayor is a liberal judicial activist of the first order who thinks her own personal political agenda is more important than the law as written,” before invoking 9/11 and Sotomayor’s supposed indifference to firefighters. Today, she brought that vitriol to the welcoming studios of Fox News.
Curt Levey: Levey directs the Committee for Justice. He’s also among the loudest in the chorus of conservatives citing Jeffrey Rosen’s New Republic article to tar Sotomayor as somehow intellectually unfit to serve on the court. (See the below video for evidence of that.) During the Bush years, he worked briefly for the Justice Department’s civil rights division before moving on to fight for the confirmations of Justices John Roberts and Samuel Alito. Yesterday, at the CFJ blog, he wrote, “Sotomayor’s questionable intellect, temperament, ethics, and judgment mean that much more than just her legal analysis is in doubt. Based on past experience, that ensures that the confirmation process will be a bumpy one for the President’s nominee.”
Ed Whelan: If you read National Review‘s website, this name will ring a bell. Whelan is President of the Ethics and Public Policy Center, where he directs the program on The Constitution, the Courts, and the Culture. He was once a clerk to Supreme Court Justice Antonin Scalia and has recently made a name for himself by waging war against Harold Koh–former Yale Law School Dean and nominee to be State Department Legal Adviser–as a “radical transnationalist” hell bent on making U.S. courts subservient to international law. That campaign is seen by many as an early bid to discredit Koh should he one day be nominated to the Supreme Court himself.
Jay Sekulow: As Chief Counsel for the American Center for Law and Justice, Sekulow does the bidding of the Pat Robertson wing of judiciary activism. He recently told the Washington Post that, despite the changing political landscape, “conservatives are not lying down here and just saying, ‘Let’s give up.’ We want real hearings and real debate.” He’s also managed to to turn his work for ACLJ and other non- and for-profit enterprises into a substantial, and troubling fortune.
Other big conservative groups, like Judicial Watch and The Federalist Society have thus far operated mostly in the background. It’s still early, of course. They’ll have more to say as the confirmation process moves forward, but for now they’re mostly keeping their powder dry. As you can see, though, that’s not necessarily the rule of thumb.
Brian Beutler is TPM's senior congressional reporter. Since 2009, he's led coverage of health care reform, Wall Street reform, taxes, the GOP budget, the government shutdown fight and the debt limit fight. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org