Hispanics, conservatives push court picks

President Bush is receiving conflicting pressure from conservative and Hispanic constituencies, two groups crucial to his 2004 election victory, over whom to nominate to replace retiring Justice Sandra Day O’Connor.

Bush is expected to name O’Connor’s Supreme Court successor as soon as tomorrow, after the Senate has confirmed Judge John Roberts as chief justice.

Having previously given only general guidance, conservative leaders are now making more specific demands about which jurists Bush should consider. They also demand that Bush ignore sex and ethnicity and make the nominee’s record and qualifications the only criteria.

Hispanic leaders, however, are pressing the White House to nominate a Hispanic, and they are naming candidates they like. One is Attorney General Alberto Gonzales, whom conservatives say is unacceptable.

Both religious conservatives, for whom the federal judiciary is a top issue because of its implications for the legality of abortion, and Hispanic leaders claim credit for reelecting Bush.

Seventy-eight percent of self-identified evangelical or born-again Christians voted for Bush, as did 64 percent of voters who attend church more than once a week.

Forty-four percent of Hispanic voters supported Bush, a significant rise over the 35 percent who chose him over former Vice President Al Gore in 2000.

Alice Velazquez, who was president of the Hispanic National Bar Association when Bush ran in 2000, said that if he doesn’t nominate a Hispanic “he will miss his golden opportunity and then he will have paid a lot of lip service about advancing the goals of diversity in our institutions.” 

Mike Barrera, president of the U.S. Hispanic Chamber of Commerce, who said that there are more than 2 million Hispanic-owned businesses in the country, said, “We would like Attorney General Gonzales properly considered.”

The Hispanic Chamber’s board of directors has strongly urged Bush to nominate Gonzales.

The Hispanic National Bar Association this month pushed Gonzales as “exceedingly qualified” and has asked to meet Bush, Karl Rove, White House deputy chief of staff, and Harriet Miers, White House counsel, to argue in favor of nominating a Hispanic candidate.

Alan Varela, president of the bar association, said Hispanics are “the largest and fastest growing minority group. The continued strength of the justice system will depend on it reflecting the evolving citizenry.”

Richard Viguerie, a prominent conservative activist, yesterday released a survey of conservative leaders showing near-unanimous opposition to Gonzales. They are pressing Bush to nominate a jurist with unquestioned conservative credentials. To conservatives’ consternation, the president has refused to rule Gonzales out, as he did before nominating Roberts.

At the top of conservatives’ list are Judge Janice Rogers Brown of the D.C. Circuit Court and Judges Priscilla Owen and Edith Jones, both of the 5th Circuit.

One conservative operative called Brown “one of those outspoken conservatives that everyone feels very confident in.

“If we want a battle royal, the best person to put forward is Janice Rogers Brown. She’s someone they just put through [the Senate] with that compromise” — a reference to the Gang of 14 deal that allowed Owen and Brown a Senate floor vote without a filibuster.

Concerned Women for America (CWA) has a list that includes Owen, Jones and Brown, as well as federal appellate judges Michael McConnell and Michael Luttig. Jan LaRue, CWA’s chief counsel, said Bush should select without regard to sex or ethnicity. She has written to the White House stressing that view.

While LaRue said her group pushed specific candidates before Bush nominated Roberts, other conservatives refrained from doing so out of respect for presidential prerogative. Deference has given way to anxiety after Roberts’s ameliorative testimony before the Senate Judiciary Committee.

Dr. Virginia Armstrong, national chairwoman of Eagle Forum’s Court Watch Project, said, “There is a consensus among a lot of conservatives we need much more specificity in the nominee’s record.”

Armstrong, speaking for herself, said Brown and Jones are at the top of the list of jurists conservatives favor.

Armstrong said conservatives want a nominee who, unlike Roberts, “will not answer questions with meaningless phrases.” That is why conservatives are pushing a short list of specific judges.

“People have stepped up their directness, their requests to the White House and the Senate,” said Joseph Cella, president of Fidelis, a group that advocates for Catholic values.

“Our position is quite clear,” said Dr. John Willke, president of the Life Issues Institute, in Ohio. “Bush won the election. One of the reasons Bush won is the turnout of conservative voters, evangelical and Catholic voters.”

“On the abortion issue, there are only three solid votes [against Roe v. Wade] if Roberts is one,” he said. “We would much prefer someone who is not a question mark at all. … We want someone who’s been tested in the fire, is solidly pro-life and whom we can depend on.”