Letter drive was set up for Ginsburg

June 16, 1993|By Lyle Denniston and Susan Baer | Lyle Denniston and Susan Baer,Washington Bureau

WASHINGTON -- An unprecedented letter-writing campaign to buoy Judge Ruth Bader Ginsburg's chances of being nominated to the Supreme Court was orchestrated by her husband and friends after they began fearing she would lose out.

The effort six weeks ago came just when her fortunes as a potential nominee seemed to be declining rapidly among the circle of White House aides preparing lists for President Clinton to consider.

Although custom suggests that one may hope to get a Supreme Court seat, but may not actually lobby for it, Judge Ginsburg herself had at least a passive role in getting the effort started and her husband, Martin Ginsburg, a Washington tax lawyer, was actively involved, according to several individuals who took part.

Mr. Ginsburg did not return telephone calls.

In the past, some would-be justices had their friends or spouses working quietly for them and making limited contacts with White House or Capitol Hill advisers in the process. Apparently no prior campaign of promotion reached the level of the pro-Ginsburg effort, involving dozens of letters and maybe many more than that, by people who know her or favor her candidacy. It is unclear just what role the campaign had played in the resuscitation of Judge Ginsburg's chances.

For a time, her name dropped out of the rumor mill, and was missing from the flow of leaks about the selection process. But it resurfaced in a White House leak just two days before the president turned to her as his final choice.

The specific aim of the letter-writing effort was to generate written expressions of support to the president, to counter negative publicity and lobbying that she and some of her supporters thought was going to hurt her significantly. Much of that, her friends feared, was coming from more liberal women's rights activists upset over Judge Ginsburg's very public criticism of Roe vs. Wade, the 1973 abortion rights ruling.

When Judge Ginsburg emerged as the nominee Monday, as a very last-minute choice, the White House released a sheaf of letters praising her, and aides to the president indicated that he personally had read some of the correspondence and been impressed by it.

Where lettters came from

Some of those, it is now clear, were written on request as a result of round-robin telephone calls, friend to friend, organization to organization.

The White House did not hand out scores of other letters, but many, too, had resulted from the promotional campaign.

Two of the letters the White House called to reporters' attention were from the judge's longtime friends, Stanford University law professor Barbara Allen Babcock and New York City abortion rights lawyer Janet Benshoof.

Ms. Babcock said in a telephone interview from Palo Alto that she wrote her own letter specifically at the request of Martin Ginsburg. Ms. Benshoof, who was unavailable yesterday, sent word through an aide that her letter "was not an unsolicited letter," but had come out of "one of the efforts of Martin Ginsburg" to stir support for his wife's candidacy.

Ms. Babcock also said that she had decided on her own, after a dinner meeting with Judge Ginsburg herself at Stanford May 7, to make calls around the country to ask others who knew the judge to write, too.

She did so, Ms. Babcock recalled, because Judge Ginsburg had told her that she feared her chances of becoming a Supreme Court justice were fading because some younger women seemed to find her views on women's issues -- and especially on abortion -- to be "out of date." She thought the White House could be hearing those objections.

The judge was at Stanford to judge a mock courtroom argument among law students. "She was concerned," Ms. Babcock remembered, "that maybe the younger generation of feminists was saying her ideas were outdated."

No campaign was found

The professor also said the judge was concerned about a newspaper or magazine story she had read, suggesting a campaign against her. Ms. Babcock checked around, she said, and found that that was not true: "There was no such thing, nothing even remotely like that, nothing that was organized."

But, Ms. Babcock said, she began making calls to assure that Judge Ginsburg would get a favorable review at the White House.

At some point, she said, "Martin called me, and said a letter from me would be helpful, if I would do it, a letter to" White House Counsel Bernard Nussbaum. She wrote it, telling Mr. Nussbaum:

"Ruth Ginsburg is rightfully called the Thurgood Marshall of the women's movement. And as in the late '60's some younger African-American leaders viewed him as old-fashioned, so some new-generation feminists may think of Ruth." Her letter said she had noted that a newspaper story speculating on the "short list" of potential nominees did not include Ms. Ginsburg's name.

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