It's the calm before the Internet storm. Interest groups, influential bloggers and others are anxiously waiting to see who President Obama will pick as his first Supreme Court nominee after Justice David Souter announced his retirement May 1. Once the news is out, they will rally their online supporters and rake through the nominee's court decisions on controversial topics like gay marriage, abortion and affirmative action to speculate on how he or she will influence the high court for possibly decades to come.
"Every chink in the armor, every flaw, gets magnified" on the Internet, said Tony Mauro, a reporter with the National Law Journal who has covered the Supreme Court for nearly 30 years. The Web makes what would otherwise be normal criticism or flaws seem "like deal breakers," he said.
In the last battle over a Supreme Court nominee, conservatives roundly criticized President Bush's choice of Harriet Miers and forced her to withdraw; liberals then attempted to filibuster Samuel Alito's nomination, charging that he was too far to the right. As the legal and political blogs have grown in influence since 2005, Mauro said, the mainstream media, in turn, has acknowledged their higher profile. It only seems natural that the process will be much more intense this time around, he said.
Indeed, the Web has woven itself into nearly every part of politics and policy since the 2008 presidential campaign.
"It really depends on who the nominee is," said Nan Aron, president of the left-leaning Alliance For Justice. "We'll have some idea once the announcement is made to really gauge how much public interest there will be in the nomination. But, having said that, this is the time -- when there's a Supreme Court opening -- to reach out to as many people across the country and educate them about the importance of judges and federal judges at all levels." AFJ sends out an e-mail to its online supporters at least once a week, Aron said, and the group will undoubtedly take to its Justice Watch and Nonprofit and Foundation Advocacy blogs once a nomination is announced.
Americans United For Life says it has already seen an overwhelming response from its online supporters in discussions anticipating a nominee. "We had to upgrade the back end of our computer operation because we've seen such an outpouring of interest being more active on these issues," said Charmaine Yoest, the anti-abortion group's president. Her organization echoes a common concern on the right that Obama will nominate a judicial activist who will trigger a "dramatic shift in public understanding of the role of the courts," Yoest said. "When you go down the path of accepting judicial activism as the norm, that dramatically increases the amount of power judges have."
Yoest said her group will be ready to go right out of the gate once a nominee is announced. She said its "robust" online advocacy program, Facebook community and new IT system will mean "better, faster and cheaper" communication with supporters. "We're ready whenever they bring it out," she said. "There won't be a huge delay."
Marge Baker, executive vice president for policy and program planning with the left-leaning People for the American Way, objected to conservatives preemptively criticizing Obama's potential nominees. "The right wing has come out so early in opposition," she said. "They're going to oppose any nominee before there's even a nominee. It seems knee-jerk."
Republican Internet strategist David All predicts that both parties will take to the Internet equally. "The big difference is watching what the White House will do," he said. All argued that this president will approach the Internet's role in his SCOTUS nomination process vastly differently than his predecessor. "Along with an effective strategy of forking the candidate through the Senate, you're going to see Barack himself take to the Internet or someone close to him to help tell the story of the nominee and who they think it is," All said.
How much actual influence the Internet will have on the nomination and confirmation process remains to be seen. All is convinced that the Internet will be a "central role in this battle.... It's important to pay attention online to eventually figure out what's going to happen offline with the actual nomination."
But Jeffrey Rosen, legal affairs editor for the New Republic and professor at George Washington University Law School, isn't so sure. "In the end, Obama will make up his own mind and his nominee will be confirmed," Rosen said. "What the Internet changes is the heat and breadth of the discussion, not the ultimate decision or outcome."
Rosen has already felt that heat. His recent blog post scrutinizing one rumored nominee, federal appellate judge Sonia Sotomayor, provoked an intense outcry on the blogosphere; the reaction prompted Rosen to post an explanation.
A sign of things to come? Perhaps.
As Mauro said, "It's going to be an intense summer."