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Issue Date:  July 15, 2005

Catholic right gears up for Supreme Court fight

Activists reject Gonzalez as nominee for reputed tolerance of Roe


Front and center for the Catholic right in the fight to replace Supreme Court Justice Sandra Day O’Connor with a “strict constructionist” are two veterans of the recent judicial appointment wars, each with impeccable credentials as conservative activists in both the Catholic and political worlds.

Manuel Miranda, 45, chairman of the Third Branch Conference, a loose coalition of conservative groups, is a visiting legal fellow at the Heritage Foundation. Leonard Leo, 39, is co-chair of “Catholic Outreach” at the Republican National Committee and executive vice president of the conservative Federalist Society.

Miranda is tenacious, blunt spoken, a committed Conservative and Catholic -- both with a capital “C.” His tenure as counsel and liaison to the Catholic community for Senate Majority Leader Bill Frist (R-Tenn.) was cut short in February 2004 after revelations that, as a staffer to Senate Judiciary Committee chairman Orrin Hatch, he accessed documents of committee Democrats from a common computer network. Miranda denied wrongdoing.

He previously headed the Cardinal Newman Society, a “national organization dedicated to the renewal of Catholic identity at Catholic colleges and universities in the United States.” That group routinely criticizes Catholic colleges that invite pro-choice speakers to campus. Its most recent project asks supporters to “help identify dissidents and heretics on Catholic theology faculties.”

Today, Miranda is, to the distress of Bush administration officials, leading the charge to keep Attorney General and First Friend Alberto Gonzalez off the high court. “In the short-term,” he told NCR, “everyone is focused on it not being Gonzalez.” In private meetings with pro-life activists who support overturning Roe v. Wade, Gonzalez has signaled that he is not one of them, said Miranda. In public settings, including his 2005 confirmation hearing, Gonzalez has referred to the abortion decision as “settled law.” Fighting words.

The soft-spoken and business-like Leo is no less conservative or committed. But he is seemingly more comfortable behind the scenes, meeting with White House Chief of Staff Andy Card (as he did shortly after O’Connor’s resignation) than in publicly introducing Bush at the National Catholic Prayer Breakfast, as he did May 20.

Leo is well-wired. The Federalist Society, with 35,000 members nationwide, has played a key role in placing conservative attorneys throughout the federal government during Bush’s tenure.

“The president said in both campaigns that he would make a selection that reflects the talents and philosophical leanings of a [Justice Antonin] Scalia and [Justice Clarence] Thomas,” Leo told NCR. “And this is a president who sticks to his promises and keeps his word.”

As co-chair of the Republican Catholic effort, Leo stumped for the president last fall. “I was struck by the extent to which Catholic voters understood the connection between culture-of-life issues and the courts,” he said. “They know it’s not simply about a litmus test on abortion, but a commitment to the proper role of the court -- a role that leaves important social questions to the political process as opposed to individual judges.”

When it comes to the high court, both Miranda and Leo share a goal long-articulated by Bush: to secure seats on the high court for “strict constructionists,” those they say are committed to the letter of the law and who will not “legislate from the bench.” In the strange hurry-up-and-wait atmosphere of the post-O’Connor-pre-nominee interregnum, each spends hours on conference calls and in meetings with inside-the-beltway interest group representatives, White House and Senate staffers, and the heartland activists who will be vital in the campaign to secure confirmation for whomever Bush ultimately names.

Miranda calls it “grass-tops” advocacy (as opposed to grass-roots activism), the idea being to use access to those who, in turn, have access to the president to influence the selection. It is no easy task, though apparently the strategy has had some effect. Bush himself took note of the effort. “Al Gonzales is a great friend of mine,” Bush told USA Today. “When a friend gets attacked, I don’t like it,” said the president. He urged interest groups to “tone down” rhetoric related to his selection.

Leo said the flurry of calls and meetings in which he participates is less about who Bush selects than about how to generate support for whomever the president picks. “The activity going on is designed to prepare to defend a nominee, to have a communications apparatus in place, to encourage people to be actively involved,” he said.

As Leo prepares to support the nominee, Miranda says he expects to do so, but makes no pledge.

“Once a nominee is in place it will be much more fun than it is right now,” said Miranda, who looks forward to defending a nominee against those “attempting to deceive and scare people.” Still, if Gonzalez or some other unacceptable candidate is named, said Miranda, “It [will] be an interesting moment [to see] who defends the president’s nominee and who sits on the side.”

Austin Ruse, an influential pro-life activist, said, “Most of the social conservative groups will just sit on their hands [should Gonzalez be the nominee] while some would overtly oppose him.”

Leo, however, puts his faith in the president. “What this president has done is bring together party and ideology and he did that by saying very crisply and clearly, ‘I’m going to nominate judges who support the Constitution as it’s written and don’t make up law.’ ”

Miranda and Leo are not the only conservative Catholics seeking to influence the process. Fidelis, a newly formed group based in Chelsea, Mich., placed an ad in a home state newspaper of Senate Minority Leader Harry Reid of Nevada condemning what it said was religious bigotry in previous nomination fights. The ad quotes Reid, prior to former Attorney General John Ashcroft’s confirmation in 2001, as saying, “I think we have a right to look at John Ashcroft’s religion.” It also states that appellate court nominee William Pryor “faced mean-spirited attacks [from Senate Democrats] simply because he was a devoted husband and father who lived his faith.” Democratic members of the Senate Judiciary Committee, including Catholics Patrick Leahy (Vt.) and Richard Durbin (Ill.), denied any anti-Catholic motivation in their questioning of Pryor.

“By shining a bright light on these outrageously intolerant remarks, we hope to put an end to them, or deter others from embracing them, so the upcoming Supreme Court nomination hearings will be responsible, civil and Constitutional, and free of antireligious bigotry,” said Fidelis president Joseph Cella. Cella previously headed the Ave Maria List, a now-defunct political fund and nonprofit organization founded by Domino’s Pizza magnate Thomas Monaghan.

Meanwhile, the Family Research Center has hired Cathy Cleaver Ruse, until recently director of planning and information and chief spokesperson on pro-life issues for the U.S. Catholic bishops, as a consultant to its nomination efforts.

Bishop William S. Skylstad of Spokane, president of the bishops’ conference, in a July 6 letter to Bush urged the president to consider “qualified jurists who, preeminently, support the protection of human life from conception to natural death, especially of those who are unborn, disabled or terminally ill.” Further, said Skylstad, Bush should “consider jurists who are also cognizant of the rights of minorities, immigrants, and those in need; respect the role of religion and of religious institutions in our society and the protections afforded them by the First Amendment; recognize the value of parental choice in education; and favor restraining and ending the use of the death penalty.”

Skylstad said the bishops would not take a position on any nominee named by Bush.

Joe Feuerherd is NCR Washington correspondent. He can be reached at

National Catholic Reporter, July 15, 2005

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