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Romney law team likely to hit conservative chord

Panel will furnish advice on judiciary

By Mark Arsenault
Globe Staff / August 5, 2011

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Republican presidential candidate Mitt Romney has assembled a cast of judicial advisers heavy with ties to the George W. Bush administration and with icons of the political right - a lineup that is likely to score points with social conservatives.

One cochair of what Romney calls his Justice Advisory Committee is former Appeals Court justice Robert Bork, a martyr of conservative legal thought whose 1987 nomination to the Supreme Court was sunk by liberals.

The second is Mary Ann Glendon, former US ambassador to the Vatican for President George W. Bush and a passionate opponent of abortion rights. The final cochair is Richard Wiley, chairman of the Federal Communications Commission during the Nixon and Ford administrations.

Romney’s message in assembling his 63-member Justice Advisory Committee is a clear signal to conservatives, said Jeff Berry, a political scientist at Tufts University. “The judiciary would be in safe hands.’ ’’

The cochairs pledged in a joint statement that Romney “will nominate judges who faithfully adhere to the Constitution’s text, structure, and history and he will carry out the duties of president as a zealous defender of the Constitution,’’ which is the kind of language favored by conservative activists who complain that liberal judges are chipping away at the original intentions of the Founding Fathers.

Other prominent conservatives on Romney’s list include Steven Bradbury, who headed the Office of Legal Counsel in the Justice Department under Bush and defended the administration’s use of waterboarding on detainees in US custody; Michael Chertoff, who was Bush’s secretary of homeland security; Jay Stephens, who served as associate attorney general for Bush; H. Christopher Bartolomucci, a White House associate counsel from 2001 to 2003; and Bradford Berenson, another former Bush White House lawyer.

Romney had a similar committee of legal advisers when he ran unsuccessfully for the Republican presidential nomination in 2008, but the current group is larger and higher-profile.

A notable omission from this year’s list is Pepperdine University law professor Douglas Kmiec, who cochaired Romney’s judicial advisory panel during his last run for president. Kmiec, a Republican, crossed party lines and endorsed Democrat Barack Obama in the general election in 2008 and then served as President Obama’s ambassador to Malta.

Romney’s advisory committee ostensibly will provide advice on “the Constitution, judicial matters, law enforcement, homeland security, and regulatory issues’’ and might offer some legal advice, according to a statement from the campaign.

But the real point of the group is seen as politics: “I’m fairly confident Romney is not turning to them for legal counsel,’’ Chris Lehane, a veteran Democratic political strategist and former adviser to Vice President Al Gore, said with a chuckle.

“There are various people on the list who are leaders on points of legal theory or scholarship that matter to conservatives, whether national security issues or social issues. It is one of the things you do in a campaign - assemble these various policy groups who at the end of the day do very little policy making, but you use them to demonstrate the breadth and width and strength of your campaign.’’

In this case, the history of the cochairs reflects the image Romney seeks to telegraph.

Bork’s battering in 1987 by liberals, led by Massachusetts Senator Edward Kennedy, produced a new word in Washington’s ever-evolving political lexicon. Judicial nominees now fear being “borked’’ by the opposing party.

Glendon also served as an adviser to the campaign in 2008. Two years ago, she turned down an award from Notre Dame over the school’s invitation to Obama to address graduates. Obama supports abortion rights.

Romney is seen as the top pick of the GOP establishment. The biggest threat to the former Bay State governor’s pursuit of the Republican nomination lurks in the insurgent Tea Party wing of the GOP. Those groups question Romney’s conservative authenticity, citing his support for health reform in Massachusetts that required nearly everyone to have health insurance and his shifting positions on abortion rights and gay rights.

Tea Party groups, at the moment, seem to prefer a conservative firebrand in the presidential sweepstakes, such as Representative Michele Bachmann of Minnesota, a declared candidate for president, or Governor Rick Perry of Texas, who is flirting with a national run.

Romney’s public release of an extensive list of prominent conservative advisors is intended to “reassure conservatives in the party and clearly the Rick Perry-Michele Bachmann wing of the party,’’ said Charles Franklin, a political scientist at the University of Wisconsin-Madison.

Romney’s recruitment of so many Bush administration lawyers to his advisory panel could also benefit campaign fund-raising.

“We’ve heard a lot about Bush financial supporters being slow to get into this race,’’ said Franklin. “And so it might also be a bit of a nod to former supporters of either President Bush that they should consider getting in for Romney.’’

Mark Arsenault can be reached at marsenault@globe.com.