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The conservative lobby to place like-minded jurists on the federal bench saw fewer successes last year. After a celebrated 2005 that saw the easy confirmation of Chief Justice John Roberts Jr. to the Supreme Court and culminating in the bruising battle in early 2006 over another conservative justice, Samuel Alito Jr., Congress had little appetite for another skirmish. So a handful of federal circuit court nominees languished while outgoing Senate Majority Leader Bill Frist (R-Tenn.), once the lobby’s judicial Jehovah, bobbed and weaved on the issue — once one of his centerpieces — as he ambled into lame-duck territory. The lobby did score some wins beyond Alito, including the confirmation of former White House official Brett Kavanaugh to the U.S. Court of Appeals for the D.C. Circuit. Yet for most of 2006, lobbyists tried in vain to make their voices heard, stressing to lawmakers that such combat would energize an apathetic conservative electorate and stem the potential for Republican defeats in the midterms. “Frist’s office always said the right things, but you can sense when something is a high priority or not,” says Curt Levey, the new executive director of the Committee for Justice, a group that supports conservative judicial nominees. “We just didn’t convince them that judges were an important election issue.” Now, members of the movement say, fresh ideas and out-of-the-box thinking are required to breathe new life into the campaign for 2007. With rumors that 86-year-old Supreme Court Justice John Paul Stevens may retire, now is the time to strike, they believe. Conservative den mother Phyllis Schlafly as an associate Supreme Court justice, anyone? “Bush should put her in there as a recess appointment and then nominate judges with conservative philosophies,” says William Greene, president of RightMarch.com, a conservative nonprofit organization. “What you do is set the �strict constructionist’ bar so high that folks like [Senate Judiciary Committee Chairman Patrick Leahy (D-Vt.)] will say, when it comes time to [name] a Supreme Court nominee, �Oh, good Lord, anybody but her. She’s not what we want to see on the bench.’ “ In addition to the distracted Frist, social conservatives and others concerned about a liberal federal court majority lost another vanguard last year — House Majority Leader Tom DeLay (R-Texas), who often rallied the troops by condemning “activist judges.” DeLay noted infamously in 2005 of the federal and state judges who ruled that a feeding tube be removed from the brain-damaged Terri Schiavo, “The time will come for the men responsible for this to answer for their behavior.” Moreover, another harsh critic of the judiciary, Rep. F. James Sensenbrenner Jr. (R-Wis.), lost control of the House Judiciary Committee in the wake of the midterms. And, despite the Democratic majority in the Senate, conservatives will still have Judiciary Committee members there backing their efforts, including Sens. John Cornyn (R-Texas), Jon Kyl (R-Ariz.), and Sam Brownback (R-Kan.), who recently held up the nomination of Janet Neff — nominated by the White House to a federal district judgeship in Michigan — because she once attended a lesbian commitment ceremony. Though the lobby says it plans to be engaged in 2007, it remains to be seen what actual sway the movement will have with Leahy. Brian Newell, congressional liaison for the Family Research Council, says his conservative group has not had a meeting with Leahy but plans to contact his office about touching base. But it may be a short conversation. “We are dealing with a majority who, in the past, have mastered the art of obstruction by bucking the president’s nominees,” Newell says.
Joe Crea can be contacted at [email protected].

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