When Ronald Reagan nominated Arizona's Sandra Day O'Connor to the Supreme Court in 1981, conservatives were nervous because little was known about her. Reagan assured religious conservatives they had nothing to fear.
Reagan told Rev. Jerry Falwell he had spoken to her about abortion, which was the main concern of religious conservatives, and found her to be "OK" on that issue. Reagan assured Falwell and company they would not be disappointed.
I was vice president of Falwell's Moral Majority at the time and went on ABC's "Nightline" to express my reservations that conservatives might not like what they were getting. What I had seen of O'Connor's record did not persuade me she would favor restricting abortion.
I was right and Reagan was wrong. Conservatives were disappointed. O'Connor has been the key vote upholding the extra-constitutional ruling known as Roe vs. Wade.
There would be other justices named by Republican presidents who also were disappointments. Anthony Kennedy was chosen by Reagan after his administration misjudged the intensity of opposition to Judge Robert Bork. Kennedy has been a disaster on abortion and religious issues.
David Souter was nominated by the current president's father after similar assurances by then-White House chief of staff John Sununu that Souter would be "OK" on issues about which conservatives cared. He wasn't. Souter has been as liberal as any justice in recent memory.
Despite her thin legislative and judicial record in Arizona, there were hints about O'Connor's legal philosophy from Eleanor Smeal, then-president of the National Organization for Women. Last week, Smeal recalled she endorsed O'Connor's nomination before the Senate Judiciary Committee because "I knew then that O'Connor, although a conservative voice, would be one who would not permit the elimination of women's fundamental rights, including the right to privacy."
Instead of seeing this as a red flag, most conservatives held their tongues. They wanted to maintain "access" to Reagan.
This history is what makes conservatives nervous about the choice President George W. Bush will make, especially when he speaks of symbolism and the potential nomination of the first Hispanic justice, possibly Attorney General Alberto Gonzales. Reagan tried symbolism by naming the first woman, but he lost substance.
We hear this President Bush has learned a lot from the mistakes of his father. Does this include naming a justice that reflects his often-stated views about wanting someone on the bench who doesn't make law, but rather upholds the Constitution? We are about to find out.
Cal Thomas is co-author (with Bob Beckel) of the book, "Common Ground: How to Stop the Partisan War That is Destroying America".
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