U.S. gun-rights lobby tries to shape court picks

Group’s opposition to some judicial nominees has kept judgeships unfilled

Associated Press

WASHINGTON (AP) — The National Rifle Association has enjoyed high-profile success as the most powerful U.S. gun lobby over the years in shaping gun-rights legislation in the U.S. Congress and state legislatures, in part by campaigning to defeat lawmakers who defy the group.

Now, the NRA has added a lesser-known strategy to protect its interests: opposing President Barack Obama’s judicial nominees when it sees them as likely to enforce gun control laws. In some cases, the group’s opposition has kept jobs on federal benches unfilled.

Still in its early stages, the effort is a safety net to ensure that federal courthouses are stocked with judges who are friendly to gun rights if gun restrictions get through the group’s first line of defense in Congress. The NRA also weighs in on state judicial elections and appointments.

The gun issue has been in a particularly strong spotlight since last month’s school shooting in Connecticut left 20 children and eight adults dead, including the gunman and his mother, who had legally purchased the high-powered rifle that was used.

Since the shooting, the NRA has rejected gun control proposals and said gun violence should be addressed by arming the “good guys” and putting an armed security officer in every school.

As the NRA works to put its stamp on another branch of government, its influence could be more lasting — federal judges are appointed for life and aren’t subject to voters in election years.

A case study in the NRA’s approach to judges across the country can be found in its opposition to the nominations of the two most recent Supreme Court justices.

The NRA opposed both Sonia Sotomayor and Elena Kagan for the country’s top court and warned its allies in Congress that their votes to confirm each would be held against them.

In a letter to lawmakers, the NRA wrote: “In testimony before the Senate Judiciary Committee, (Kagan) refused to declare support for the Second Amendment, saying only that the matter was ‘settled law.’ This was eerily similar to the scripted testimony of Justice Sonia Sotomayor last year, prior to her confirmation to the court. It has become obvious that ‘settled law’ is the scripted code of an anti-gun nominee’s confirmation effort.”

It added, “The NRA is not fooled.”

The Second Amendment guarantees the right to bear arms.

The NRA had limited evidence to back up its claims that the two were opposed to gun rights. It pointed to a one-paragraph memo Kagan wrote in 1987 to Justice Thurgood Marshall that suggested she was not sympathetic to gun owners, and to her time as a lawyer in the Clinton administration as it sought to put tighter gun controls in place. For Sotomayor, critics cited a ruling that upheld New York’s ban on nunchucks, a martial arts weapon that has nothing to do with firearms.

Even some pro-gun-rights lawmakers bristled at the NRA inserting itself into judicial confirmation battles.

“I am a bit concerned that the NRA weighed in and said they were going to score this. I don’t think that was appropriate,” Republican Sen. Lisa Murkowski said at the time. “A vote on a Supreme Court justice, in my mind, should be free from those political interest groups that are going to pressure you.”

But, like most Republicans, she still voted against confirming both nominees, likely for reasons beyond the gun issue.

Only seven Republican senators voted for Sotomayor in 2009 and, a year later, only five Republicans voted for Kagan.

Among those who supported both was Sen. Richard Lugar, a six-term Republican who lost his seat last year in a primary. The NRA exacted its revenge, spending $200,000 in order to help challenger Richard Mourdock.

Last spring, the group opposed the nomination of Elissa Cadish to the federal bench in Nevada and worked with Sen. Dean Heller of that state to block it.

In 2008, while running for a district court position in Nevada, Cadish replied on an election-year survey that “I do not believe that there is this constitutional right” to guns. Similarly, the NRA has helped block Caitlin Halligan’s rise from the Manhattan district attorney’s office to the U.S. Court of Appeals for the District of Columbia Circuit, a launching pad for several Supreme Court justices. The group pointed to her work on New York’s 2001 lawsuit against gun makers and opposition to a 2005 law that shielded firearm companies from liability.

That appeals court seat has remained vacant since 2005, when President George W. Bush nominated and the Senate confirmed John Roberts as chief justice on the Supreme Court.