Souter confirmation expected despite lingering feminist opposition

September 25, 1990|By Lyle Denniston | Lyle Denniston,Washington Bureau of The Sun

WASHINGTON -- Along K Street, Washington's busiest downtown thoroughfare, very bright red signs have started showing up on utility poles and boxes, and pasted over other posters on available flat spaces. Scurrying pedestrians and

motorists can't miss the glaring top line: "Stop Souter."

But, if all of the political realists in this city could be polled on whether that will happen, it is fair to speculate that they could be close to unanimous in saying it would not.

It is now common wisdom, shared along K Street as well as elsewhere in town, that Judge David H. Souter's move to the U.S. Supreme Court almost certainly will not be stopped. That was far from a sure thing just a few days ago.

What has happened in the interim were the Senate Judiciary Committee hearings -- three days with Judge Souter as the witness, two days with 41 other witnesses demanding "yea" or "nay" votes on his nomination.

The consensus in the capital is that the hearings made all the difference -- a "tour de force" by Judge Souter himself, as the Judiciary Committee's chairman, Sen. Joseph R. Biden Jr., has twice put it, meaning to be very flattering.

From almost total obscurity in remote New Hampshire this summer to celebrity status last week at Memorial Stadium in Baltimore, where he showed up looking reasonably comfortable in a jaunty Boston Red Sox cap, Judge Souter had undergone a transformation in public imagery. And Washington, awaiting the Senate's expected final approval of him, has begun to ponder how it happened.

In the weeks since President Bush chose him on July 23, Judge Souter had been making -- characteristically, in very studious fashion -- what he has called "sort of an autobiographical inquiry," examining again how he sees himself and what he believes, as preparation for the Senate's hearings.

What Judge Souter did at those hearings -- and on nationwide television -- "was not a manipulated performance," according to a person here who was familiar with Judge Souter's preparation, and with his thinking.

That individual, who asked not to be identified, added: "The David Souter you saw is the real David Souter."

Echoed Thomas Rath, a Concord, N.H., lawyer, and one of Judge Souter's closest friends who took part in helping Judge Souter prepare for his Senate encounter: "What you saw was him.

"This man sat there, for 18 1/2 hours, and there was not a single statement out of sync; there is no way you could prepare someone like that. He did it without ever looking at a note; there is no way you could coach that."

The nominee's supporters, in the White House and in the Senate, had grumbled openly beforehand, because activist civil rights groups had insisted that Judge Souter bear the "burden of proof" at the hearings in order to demonstrate that he was not only qualified for but was also entitled to be a Supreme Court justice.

Now, a number of those activist groups, who earlier had given every sign that they were gearing up for a fight, have dropped out of sight -- apparently in direct response to the way he handled the "burden of proof" at the nationally televised hearings. Those groups are not entirely content, their leaders say, but they seem unwilling to risk their political capital by taking him on in the face of almost certain Senate approval.

Judge Souter, to be sure, still has opponents -- very angry opponents, particularly in women's rights groups -- who fear what he will do as a justice on the abortion question. The red "Stop Souter" signs posted downtown were put up by the National Organization for Women, announcing a "Do or Die Day" today -- a day of anti-Souter rallying and "mass" lobbying.

But, in the 10 days since Judge Souter sat down at a red-felt-covered table on Capitol Hill to start making his case for a promotion to the nation's highest court, he apparently has neutralized the opposition, even if he has not won everybody over.

Already, senators are eagerly putting out press notices declaring their intention to vote for Judge Souter -- even senators who had not been at the hearings.

The contrast with 1987 -- the last time that a Supreme Court nomination stirred a serious debate here -- is being widely noted. In that year, Judge Robert H. Bork was turned down decisively after a bitter, nationwide feud. Then, the close of the hearings found the nominee's supporters deeply pessimistic. The outlines nearly certain defeat could already be seen; Judge Bork was privately berating his "handlers," and they were privately blaming him.

When the defeat of Judge Bork finally came, the combatants tTC then were so weary that Justice Anthony M. Kennedy's nomination some weeks later sailed through without a serious contest.

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