If President Bush gets his way on Supreme Court appointments, the court may become "the instrument of ideologues dedicated to reversing a century of social progress,'' civil rights leader Wade Henderson told a San Francisco audience Wednesday.
In remarks prepared for the Commonwealth Club, Henderson, executive director of the Leadership Conference on Civil Rights, assailed Bush's past judicial appointments and urged Democrats to fight the elevation of either of the high court's leading conservatives -- Antonin Scalia or Clarence Thomas -- to succeed Chief Justice William Rehnquist.
Bush has named Scalia and Thomas as the justices he most admires, and many commentators have predicted that he will select one of them to lead the court should the 80-year-old Rehnquist leave his post. The departure of Rehnquist, who is battling thyroid cancer, also would create a vacancy for Bush to fill on the court.
Senate Minority Leader Harry Reid, D-Nev., said in December he opposed Thomas but might support Scalia, whom he described as "one smart guy.'' Some liberals have suggested that the nomination of any current justice to replace Rehnquist would not change the court's ideological balance and isn't worth an all-out opposition campaign.
But Henderson said the elevation of either Scalia or Thomas would be "a dream come true for ultra-conservatives -- and a judicial fright night for everyone else.''
He cited Scalia's votes to strike down portions of federal laws on age and disability discrimination and family medical leave and his questioning of the existence of a constitutional right to privacy, the basis of rulings on abortion and birth control. Thomas is even more "radically conservative'' and has voted to allow unlimited government detentions of terror suspects and dismantle much federal regulation of businesses, Henderson said.
Henderson is a law professor and former official of the American Civil Liberties Union and NAACP. He heads a coalition of more than 180 organizations that was founded in 1950 and has played a leading role in most major civil rights legislation of the last half century.
He told the Commonwealth Club that Bush "has been remaking the federal bench, seat by seat and court by court.''
"If the Supreme Court becomes the instrument of ideologues dedicated to reversing a century of social progress, we will all feel the consequences in our daily lives ... whether we are most concerned about preventing discrimination, preserving a woman's right to choose (abortion), protecting working Americans, of preserving our civil liberties,'' Henderson said.
He also said Democrats, despite their minority status in both houses of Congress, needed to show their power on issues such as judicial appointments to have any hope of gaining Republican cooperation for a bipartisan approach to the nation's problems.
"When one side has an ideologically driven agenda that represents a rollback in everything most Americans believe,'' Henderson said, "they've got to know that you have the power to stop them -- or you can't have bipartisanship.''
© 2005 San Francisco Chronicle