Clinton picks Ginsburg Nominee would be second woman on high court

WASHINGTON — WASHINGTON -- President Clinton nominated Ruth Bader Ginsburg to the Supreme Court yesterday, selecting a heroine of the women's movement who would be the first Jewish justice on the high court in 24 years.

Ending his troubled, three-month search to replace retiring Justice Byron R. White, Mr. Clinton called Judge Ginsburg, the first high court appointment by a Democratic president in almost 26 years, "a healer" and a "centrist" who will prove to be "an able force for consensus-building on the Supreme Court."


Standing beside the 60-year-old federal appeals court judge in the Rose Garden, Mr. Clinton added:

"Many admirers of her work say that she is to the women's movement what former Supreme Court Justice Thurgood Marshall was to the movement for the rights of African-Americans. I can think of no greater compliment to bestow on an American lawyer."


Judge Ginsburg, who won five of six cases she argued before the court on behalf of women's rights before she was named to the appeal courts in Washington in 1980, hailed her nomination as another sign of "the end of the days when women -- at least half the talent pool in our society -- appear in high places only as one-at-a-time performers."

If she is confirmed by the Senate, her appointment is expected to strengthen the power of the court's centrists -- Justices Anthony M. Kennedy, Sandra Day O'Connor and David H. Souter -- who decide many of the court's key cases.

Late last week when Judge Breyer, who also is Jewish, was presumed to be the pick, White House aides said privately that Mr. Clinton took seriously the call by some to return to the tradition of having a "Jewish seat" on the court. No Jewish justice has served since 1969, when Abe Fortas resigned from the court.

The president went out of his way yesterday to praise the two very public also-rans, Interior Secretary Bruce E. Babbitt and Boston-based federal appellate Judge Stephen G. Breyer, saying that they would make "outstanding nominees" in the future.

As recently as Friday, these two were the only candidates on the list, according to White House officials. Their treatment offended even those supportive of Judge Ginsburg's nomination and furthered the perception that Mr. Clinton's White House operation is badly flawed.

"I think we've got to get away from this process of appearing to send up trial balloons," said GOP Sen. William S. Cohen of Maine. "We cannot use people as balloons."

Women's groups and feminist politicians, however, rallied immediately to support the choice of Judge Ginsburg to become only the second woman on the Supreme Court in history.

"She was my choice," said Texas Gov. Ann W. Richards, who apparently helped steer Mr. Clinton to Judge Ginsburg with a recent letter extolling her virtues. "She's perfect. Her credentials are impeccable. She seemed like a natural."


Her Roe speech criticized

The only negative rumblings came from abortion rights activists, who expressed concern about a speech Judge Ginsburg delivered in March criticizing the sweep of the 1973 Roe vs. Wade decision.

But there was little but praise for Judge Ginsburg on Capitol Hill ++ yesterday, where her approval seems a foregone conclusion.

"This nomination is going to have probably the least trouble of any nomination I've seen for the Supreme Court in recent years," predicted Sen. Patrick J. Leahy of Vermont, a Democrat who serves on the Senate Judiciary Committee.

Sen. Orrin Hatch, a Utah Republican who also serves on the committee, added, "I suspect she'll go through" without difficulty.

Judge Ginsburg was hardly the president's first selection, however, and the tortured route the White House took to reach this destination robbed the pick of some of its luster, especially after the president lost his temper when questioned about his decision-making process.


The Rose Garden announcement, initially billed as a news conference, was attended by several dozen dignitaries and supporters, including Judge Ginsburg's husband, son and son-in-law, who were seated with Hillary Rodham Clinton in front of the president.

After the president's announcement, Judge Ginsburg thanked the president, saying she "will strive with all that I have to live up to your expectations in making this appointment." She also recited a few brief, but poignant, facts from her own life that underscored how far women attorneys have had to come.

She cites gains by women

She pointed out that when President Carter, the man who appointed her to the bench, was elected, no woman had ever served on the Supreme Court, and only one woman, Shirley Hufstedler of California, was an appellate judge.

"Today, Justice Sandra Day O'Connor graces the Supreme Court bench," she said, "and close to 25 women serve at the federal court of appeals level, two as chief judges."

Judge Ginsburg also said that in the late 1950s, her law school class included fewer than 10 women out of a class of over 500. "And . . . not a law firm in the entire city of New York bid for my employment as a lawyer when I earned my degree."


She concluded with testimonial to her long-deceased mother, saying, "I pray that I may be all that she would have been had she lived in an age when women could aspire and achieve, and daughters are cherished as much as sons."

The president, clearly moved, then looked up for questions. ABC White House correspondent Brit Hume, asked the president about the "zig-zag quality" of his decision-making process.

His voice trembling, the president snapped, "How you could ask a question like that after the statement she just made is beyond me."

The "press conference" was over.

In the end, however, the process that led to Judge Ginsburg -- even though she may prove to be a stunning choice -- left the president and his advisers trying to patch up the reputations of those they'd rejected for the appointment and claiming that Judge Ginsburg wasn't an 11th-hour pick.

These officials tried for more than an hour to back track on their own assertions -- made as recently as 72 hours ago -- that the process had narrowed down to a choice between Mr. Babbitt and Mr. Breyer.


'Judge Ginsburg won it'

"Judge Breyer didn't lose this," one White House official said. "Judge Ginsburg won it."

According to the officials, Mr. Clinton called a meeting of his top legal advisers in the Oval Office March 20, the day after Justice White announced his retirement.

He told them that he wanted two things in a nominee: a centrist "who was always well-reasoned" and someone who'd had a wealth of real-life experiences.

The president, a lawyer, former Arkansas attorney general and law professor, waxed nostalgically about the Earl Warren court of 1954, which was led by a governor and had on it two former U.S. senators, two academics and three former Justice Department officials.

"The president was very much interested in people who had never been judges before," said one aide.


Dossiers eight to 10 pages long were prepared on some 50 prospective nominees -- with Mr. Clinton reading them as they were prepared, but meanwhile the president turned rather swiftly to New York Gov. Mario Cuomo, the only person he'd mentioned as a possible appointee last year during the campaign. Mr. Cuomo declined to be considered.

Next, Education Secretary Richard W. Riley, former governor of South Carolina, took himself out of the running, White House officials said yesterday.

As the search dragged on for a longer period than any since the Civil War, Mr. Clinton was said by aides to be dissatisifed with the list brought to him, implicitly criticizing all of the names on it -- including Judge Ginsburg's.

Ginsburg 'too old'

In fact, on May 1, one senior White House official involved in the selection process said privately that Judge Ginsburg was not going to be picked because she was "too old."

Then 10 days ago, the White House let it be known that the president was leaning toward Mr. Babbitt -- and that The List suddenly was down to two names: Mr. Babbitt and Judge Breyer, another centrist Democrat who was in the hospital after a bicycle accident with broken ribs and a punctured lung.


Mr. Babbitt's name was then sullied by old, never-substantiated rumors circulated by right-wing critics that he once had been beholden to casinos controlled by organized crime because of large gambling debts.

Republicans in the Senate also complained of his lack of judicial experience while his allies in the environmental movement lobbied Vice President Al Gore to keep him at Interior.

As the president seemed to move away from Mr. Babbitt, that left Judge Breyer, who came from his hospital bed to have lunch with the president on Friday.

White House officials declined to characterize the president's reaction to Judge Breyer except in positive terms. He seemed assured of getting the nod as late as Saturday, when it leaked to the press that he had failed to pay Social Security taxes for a part-time cleaning woman already on Social Security.