Babbitt reported to be Clinton's choice for court Serious challenge not expected

June 08, 1993|By Lyle Denniston | Lyle Denniston,Washington Bureau

WASHINGTON -- President Clinton is set to pick a member of his Cabinet, Interior Secretary Bruce E. Babbitt, for a seat on the Supreme Court soon, barring a last-minute change of mind, people familiar with the nomination process said yesterday.

After one of the longest searches in history for a justice, the president reportedly has settled on Mr. Babbitt, a longtime political associate and friend, to take the seat to be vacated later this month by retiring Justice Byron R. White.

From Capitol Hill to the White House, and in lobbyists' offices in between, it was a nearly unanimous view that Mr. Clinton has decided to pass over all of the judges on his list, preferring instead to have a more prominent, politically experienced figure whom he knows personally -- and that is why Mr. Babbitt has suddenly reached the top.

"This is real," said one outside adviser to the White House.

A number of individuals working on the selection process cautioned that Mr. Clinton could still change his mind, and that the president had not yet made a hard-and-fast commitment to Mr. Babbitt. But those same sources also sought to discount the prospect of a switch at this point. It was suggested that Mr. Clinton wants to announce his choice tomorrow or the next day, and in any event no later than next week; White House aides would only say that it will come after today.

The president told reporters yesterday: "Stay tuned. I have not made a decision yet, but I'm working on it."

Some White House aides were continuing to insist that the president is still considering, in addition to Mr. Babbitt, federal circuit judges Stephen Breyer of Boston and Gilbert Merritt of Nashville, Tenn. Some of that effort, however, appeared to be aimed at ensuring that the president remain free of a commitment to Mr. Babbitt should a significant political challenge to his potential nomination emerge.

As of now, there appears to be little prospect of a serious challenge, although conservative organizations closely monitoring the process have begun circulating statements skeptical of Mr. Babbitt's qualifications. As Thomas L. Jipping, who runs a judicial monitoring project for the conservative Free Congress Foundation, put it: "After 11 weeks, all Clinton could come up with was a marginally qualified friend."

It was 11 weeks ago when Justice White announced that he would retire at the end of this term. But it was only a week ago that White House aides began leaking the name of Mr. Babbitt to the press as a Supreme Court candidate -- apparently reflecting a desire to get public reaction to him because his name had not figured prominently in any previous speculation about the appointment.

Over nearly three months, White House aides have engaged in (( regular leaks of potential nominees' names, mainly to see which ones would draw political fire. The only other potential justice that Mr. Clinton definitely was ready to choose was New York Gov. Mario M. Cuomo, who backed out when the president asked him to accept. But there have been reports that the president also had offered the job to Education Secretary Richard W. Riley, who was said to have turned it down.

Mr. Babbitt, who will turn 55 later this month, would be the first presidential confidant and lawyer without judicial experience to be put on the court since President Lyndon B. Johnson chose Abe Fortas in 1965.

In addition, Mr. Babbitt would be the first presidential aspirant and former state governor to be picked for the highest court since President Dwight D. Eisenhower named California Gov. Earl Warren to be chief justice in 1953. Mr. Babbitt ran for the presidency in 1988, offering himself as a "progressive Democrat."

One liberal activist here, speaking on condition of anonymity, said Mr. Babbitt has these characteristics, beyond the president's personal comfort with him, that have made him attractive as a nominee for Mr. Clinton: "He is a strong environmentalist, he has an excellent civil rights record, he is pro-choice, he is bright, he has a comfortable demeanor, he is passionate about issues and not just a politician; he is not a cynical person."

Mr. Babbitt, a native of Arizona, has a law degree from Harvard and served as Arizona attorney general for three years. He was appointed governor in 1978, and was elected twice in his own right.

During his run for the presidency in 1988, labor unions distanced themselves from him because, as governor, he had ordered out the National Guard during a strike at a copper mining operation in the state.

If he takes a seat on the Supreme Court, he would join two other Arizonans: Chief Justice William H. Rehnquist and Justice Sandra Day O'Connor. As governor, Mr. Babbitt named Ms. O'Connor to a state appeals court judgeship.

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