POLITICS
07/20/2009 05:12 am ET Updated May 25, 2011

Ed Meese, Far-Right Reaganite, Hired By GOP To Coordinate Sotomayor Attack

In their battle against Obama's first Supreme Court nominee, Republicans in Congress have turned to an old hand. Ed Meese, the Reagan-era attorney general and conservative firebrand, has been playing a behind-the-scenes role in organizing GOP opposition to the nomination of Sonia Sotomayor.

Meese was hired before Sotomayor was chosen. According to the Washington Post, which broke the story, he coordinated with Republican Senators on how best to plan for the nomination.

What type of guidance Meese is offering in his memos remains a secret. But it's not hard to guess the message he's trying to push. Despite being removed from government for more than two decades, Meese remains a lightening rod in judicial circles, his admirers praise his legacy as a strict "originalist" while his critics accuse him of politicizing the judicial nomination process.

As Attorney General under Ronald Reagan, Meese played an influential role in helping craft the White House's approach to the courts. He is reported to have applied litmus tests to judicial candidates, including asking them about their philosophies on Roe v. Wade, school prayer, and unions (allegations Meese has denied). Within this context, conservative figures like Antonin Scalia, Richard Posner, Kenneth Starr and Robert Bork flourished and were granted appointments -- not always successfully -- to higher posts. Moderates, by contrast, floundered. Former U.S. Deputy Solicitor General Andrew Frey found his career path impeded in part because he had given $25 to a gun-control group.

Policy tilted heavily conservative under Meese's influence as well. In January 1982, he helped guide the Reagan administration's decision to reverse a policy that removed tax exemptions from schools that discriminated on the basis of race. "We do not want IRS bureaucrats setting social policy," he reportedly said.

But Meese was known above all for his unbending belief that the conservative movement needed to change the culture of the Supreme Court. He famously declared in 1985 that judges should be "expected to resist any political effort to depart from the literal provisions of the Constitution." Later, he would suggest that it was within the power of the president to circumvent Supreme Court decisions.

"Such decisions," Meese said, "do not of themselves establish the supreme law of the land, as that phrase is known, that is binding on all persons and parts of government henceforth and forever more."

Watch video of Meese's remarks (and footage of his resignation):

Such remarks engendered a wave of concern and anger among Democrats, moderates, and even members of the Court. Justices Brennan and Stevens would rebuke the argument that the court had departed from the constitution in speeches later that year.

The Meese philosophy would be put to the test in 1987, when a Supreme Court vacancy presented itself following the retirement of Justice Lewis Powell. In his place, Reagan turned to Judge Bork who, even before his nomination, was heavily criticized by Democrats in the Senate. When that nomination was defeated, in large part over opposition to Bork's judicial "originalism," Meese hastily pushed for a replacement: Judge Douglas Ginsburg. It was a peculiar choice. A former Harvard academic, Ginsburg had argued before the court once. But, according to contemporary news reports, Meese regarded him as an "ideological soul mate" based on various conversations the two had on constitutional issues, including abortion. Ginsburg would end up withdrawing his name after embarrassing revelations from his past surfaced, including ones regarding marijuana use. And Reagan would finally settle on the more moderate Anthony Kennedy for the Court.

Meese would resign from his post as Attorney General the next year, under a host of legal problems and an unfavorable ethics investigation. Since then, however, he has played an active role in crafting conservative judicial philosophy. Last year, he expressed his concern that the nomination process had become too laborious and partisan during a speech in Greenville, South Carolina. And now, of course, he is helping contribute to that trend by coordinating the political opposition to Obama's Supreme Court nominee.

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