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Courting Disaster
July 9, 2001

Robert Novak reports that we're not going to be re-Soutered. Yet. Since President Bush installed Texas Supreme Court Justice Alberto Gonzales as White House counsel, buzz from the Washington rumor mill has hinted that the moderate Hispanic is Supreme Court bound. But according to Novak, White House aides say "Gonzales will not be Bush's first or second selection for the Supreme Court, though he may end up there after two new justices have been seated." The good news is that Gonzales doesn't top the list; the bad news is that he's on the list at all.

As with Bush Senior's stealth pick, the little-known David Souter, who has since established himself as one of the high court's most reliable liberals, the Gonzales file is notably thin. For purposes of running the Senate gauntlet, the Souter strategy has its advantages - choosing a nominee so anonymous that critics' lack of ammunition renders him less vulnerable to attack. But making a covert operation of a lifetime nomination is high-risk. A bland champion caches no political capital with the base, and eventually the most unknown quantity becomes known - disastrously in Souter's case.

From a personal standpoint, Gonzales is a strategist's dream. Like Clarence Thomas, the man who would be justice comes equipped with an up-from-nothing story that makes Cinderella look second-rate. Born to Mexican migrant workers who never made it past sixth grade, Gonzales won a place at the Air Force Academy, and worked his way through Harvard Law. After 13 years as a business lawyer, he penetrated the Bush inner circle as legal counsel, served two years as Secretary of State, two more as a Texas Supreme Court justice, and most recently as White House counsel. Liberals would be hard pressed to apply the Ashcroft treatment to a Latino nominee, and with the Hispanic vote figuring heavily in the re-election game plan, the White House is ready to offer high-profile inducements.

Politically, it makes sense. But philosophically, the little we know suggests the search committee should recast its nets. In June 1999, Texas passed a law requiring parental notification before a minor receives an aborti0on. "When a child is in crisis, parents should have a role and a voice," Bush said when he signed the bill. "They should be the first to help, not the last to know." Within months, a 17-year old high school senior became pregnant and sought permission to abort her baby without the knowledge of her pro-life parents. When the matter finally reached the state Supreme Court, Gonzales joined the majority in signing the baby's death warrant by interpreting the law's judicial-bypass provision so broadly that the Republican National Coalition for Life concluded that it "virtually nullified" the notification law. The little we know is all we need to know.

Last night at the NAACP's annual convention, Julian Bond ranted that Bush has "appeased the wretched appetites of the extreme right wing" and accused him of "pick[ing] Cabinet officials whose devotion to the Confederacy is nearly canine in its uncritical affection." This is the reward for attempting to mollify the opposition: exactly nothing.

Making nice with the moderates has its place: on golf outings and Rose Garden photo ops. But when it comes to cementing the pillars of justice, token gestures buy little and often return haunt the giver. As he chooses Supreme Court nominees, Mr. Bush faces a litmus test of his own. If his conservatism runs deeper than a campaign slogan, he will choose someone with the wisdom of Rehnquist, the stature of Scalia, and conservatism as true as Clarence Thomas'. A true believer. And another. And another. Because even Daschle's Senate can only deal out so many defeats.

The Left is ready for just such a showdown. "If George W. Bush follows through on his promise to the right wing and nominates someone in the mode of Scalia and Thomas and Rehnquist, then there is going to be an epic battle," warns Ralph Neas, president of People for the American Way. Here's hoping that the Right is ready to fight and that the President gives us someone worth fighting for.

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