Protest Samuel Alito's nomination

WASHINGTON, D.C. (WOMENSENEWS)–Hours after President Bush tapped Judge Samuel Alito to succeed retiring Justice Sandra Day O’Connor on Monday, the Rev. Rob Schenck made his way to the steps of the Supreme Court.

“Lord,” he said that morning as he led a small circle of supporters in prayer, “we pray for a reversal of the scourge of Roe v. Wade.”

An evangelical Protestant minister and president of the National Clergy Council in Washington, D.C., Schenck was intent on drawing the eyes and ears of the national media to his opposition to the 1973 Supreme Court decision.

With Alito as associate justice, the country will be on course to reach the Religious Right’s top three goals: recriminalizing abortion, outlawing gay marriage and acknowledging the role of God in public life, Schenck said.

But as Schenck knelt in prayer, he was not left in peace.

A group of about 20 pro-choice protesters stood a few feet away, positioned under the motto “Equal Justice Under the Law” that is carved into the marble facade of the court.

“No! No! No! Alito will not Save Roe!” the group shouted, brandishing placards and wearing T-shirts that said “Save Roe!” and “Stand up for Choice.”

High-Stakes Struggle

The encounter distilled the high-stakes struggle between women’s rights activists and the religious right.

After Bush’s personal lawyer Harriet Miers was forced to step aside as the president’s high court nominee last week under pressure from anti-choice constituents, those arrayed against Roe are fairly sanguine about Alito.

“Any nominee who so worries the radical left is worthy of serious consideration,” said James Dobson, founder and chair of Focus on the Family, a conservative advocacy group based in Colorado Springs.

In the volatile atmosphere of Washington, women’s rights activists also sensed that a scandal-weakened Bush administration might provide a political opening.

Last week, the U.S. military death toll surpassed 2,000, a grisly milestone for a war that no longer enjoys support from the majority of Americans. Political support for the president, according to recent polls, has whittled down to around 40 percent.

“I hate to take glee at anyone’s misery,” Kim Gandy, president of the National Organization for Women in Washington, D.C., wrote in an Oct. 30 blog, “but I’ll admit being pleased that every day brings more dissension in conservative ranks and fresh possibilities for indictments of women’s rights opponents in the Congress and over at the White House. Anything that distracts them from slashing our rights, cutting funds for human needs (and starting another war) makes me excited to read the newspaper again.”

Libby, DeLay and Frist

The indictment and subsequent resignation of Vice President Dick Cheney’s chief of staff, I. Lewis “Scooter” Libby, last week came on the heels of the September indictment of former House Majority Leader Tom DeLay, the Texas Republican who resigned after being charged with channeling corporate contributions to home state candidates in the 2002 elections. Meanwhile, Senate Majority Leader Bill Frist, a Tennessee Republican, has come under scrutiny for possible insider trading connected with the sale of stock in his family’s hospital company shortly before the value of the stock fell.

Bush has also came under heavy fire for his tardy response to Hurricane Katrina in the Gulf Coast.

“All of these things taken together clearly weaken President Bush,” said Gloria Feldt, the former president of Planned Parenthood Federation of America.

Feldt and others hope the GOP’s problems will weaken Bush and perhaps build opposition to his party’s agenda, which at the moment includes plans to cut funding for federal programs that aid women and children and enact tax cuts that critics say are geared to wealthy individuals and large corporations.

Women’s rights advocacy groups such as NOW and the National Women’s Law Center in Washington, D.C., are using public relations tools and grassroots lobbying efforts to build opposition to proposed budget cuts to federal programs that provide health insurance for the poor, foster care and food stamps.

“Republicans tend to vote in lock step,” Gandy said, noting that Republicans may now be more willing to buck their party in its weakened state ahead of 2006 midterm elections. “I think the administration is going to have a harder and harder time pressing its agenda because of all the corruption that’s been revealed.”

Gandy and others also hope to stop Alito from taking a seat on the Supreme Court.

“President Bush has chosen someone who threatens the very existence of core legal rights that Americans, especially women, have relied on for decades,” said Marcia D. Greenberger, co-president of the National Women’s Law Center.

Alito Upheld Notification Law

As a judge on the Third Circuit Court of Appeals, Alito wrote an opinion supporting a state law requiring women to notify their husbands before having an abortion, according to the National Women’s Law Center. The Supreme Court majority later disagreed with Alito. He also declined to join a decision on his court to strike down a state ban on abortion procedures that had no exception to protect a woman’s health, the center said.

The center also outlined other areas where Alito could hurt women’s rights. He sided against Congress’ power to enact provisions of the Family and Medical Leave Act, which requires employers to give workers unpaid leave to care for a newborn child or other family members, for example. And he issued decisions making it harder for victims of race and sex discrimination to prove their cases.

With Alito being closely tied to prospects for overturning Roe, women’s rights activists are urging Democrats to stand up to the GOP.

On Tuesday, Democratic Leader Harry Reid of Nevada forced the Senate into a rare closed-door session to demand a promise from Republicans to accelerate a congressional inquiry into the administration’s use of intelligence leading up to the Iraq war.

Women’s rights advocates hope Democrats will show similar gumption in the Alito hearings and possibly mount a filibuster against him, Feldt said.

Democrats could potentially block Alito’s nomination if they banded together to prevent Republicans, who number 55 in the Senate, from reaching the 60 votes needed to defeat a filibuster. Democrats’ task would be easier if they could recruit some moderate, pro-choice Republican senators to their side.

Conservative Republicans, however, have threatened to change Senate rules, if necessary, to prevent Democrats from blocking judicial nominees.

For now, however, Republicans are working to woo moderate Senate Democrats to their side to avoid that scenario.

That leaves women’s rights activists keeping a worried eye on the confirmation hearings, which have not yet been scheduled.

“This is the moment in which the Democrats will show what they’re made of,” said Feldt. “Either they will put some starch in their spines and stay firm, ask the important questions and do what’s right for the country after they hear the answers to those questions, or they won’t.”

Allison Stevens is Washington bureau chief at Women’s eNews.

Women’s eNews welcomes your comments. E-mail us at [email protected].

For more information:

Legal Momentum–Supreme Court Dossier
Prospective Nominee of Samuel Alito

Progress for America–Judge