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Originally published July 20, 2005 at 12:00 AM | Page modified July 20, 2005 at 10:31 AM

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Internet bloggers log on to weigh in on Roberts

The United States hasn't had a new Supreme Court justice in 11 years — an eternity in the fast-changing world of technology. With a vacancy created...

Seattle Times business reporter

The United States hasn't had a new Supreme Court justice in 11 years — an eternity in the fast-changing world of technology.

With a vacancy created by Sandra Day O'Connor's retirement, and John Roberts Jr. nominated to replace her yesterday, the Internet is buzzing with opinions, predictions and strategies from all sides.

A decade ago, political activism might have started with an office for lobbyists in the Capitol or a public demonstration downtown.

Now it often begins with an Internet connection, a clever Web site, a list of e-mail addresses and a group of sympathetic bloggers.

The past few weeks have seen a mass mobilization of a digital kind. Within an hour of O'Connor's announcement on July 1, one interest group had sent out nearly a million e-mails. Others circulated petitions through cyberspace, along with surveys, form letters to President Bush and senators, plans for text-messaging and mobile-phone campaigns, and solicitations for money.

And they were just warming up.

In the words of one blogger hoping to influence the debate: "Let the battle begin!"

The 2004 election established the Internet as an essential medium in the political process and tested new online tools for organizing support and advocating positions.

About 37 percent of Americans used the Internet to gather information, debate the issues or contribute money and time to candidates, according to the Pew Internet and American Life Project.

Changes in the Supreme Court could spur the next wave of political activism on the Web. Bush's nominee could sway the balance of the court on contentious issues such as abortion, affirmative action and the powers of state and federal government.

But the surge in activity comes just as the Federal Elections Commission (FEC) is considering making political advocacy on the Internet subject to campaign-finance rules.

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"No bricks and mortar"

The Web makes it easy to create new virtual institutions for political purposes, said John Palfrey, executive director of the Berkman Center for Internet & Society at Harvard University.

"There are no bricks and mortar; [no] building on K Street," he said. Yet "you are able to erect an institution quickly and inexpensively and have an impact on civic life."

People for the American Way, which started a campaign called Save the Court, is encouraging people to use the Internet and mobile phones as political-action tools.

The group is gathering volunteers with mobile phones for a "mass immediate response team" to call senators, media representatives and others in an effort to apply pressure against a nominee it considers too far to the right.

Roberts' record "raises serious questions," the group said last night, but it did not immediately call for the Senate to reject him.

On the other side, the American Center for Law and Justice invited visitors to sign an online petition to Bush, urging him to "stand strong against the liberal onslaught." So far, about 31,000 people have signed the letter.

The group said it is working closely with other organizations and is launching a nationwide campaign in support of Roberts, calling him "an exceptional choice who will bring sound legal reasoning to the high court."

Former U.S. Sen. Slade Gorton, R-Wash., now a political consultant for the law firm Preston Gates & Ellis, told a judicial conference in Spokane yesterday that interest groups will spend millions to influence the president and "10 to 25 senators" whose votes might be swayed.

Ordinary people such as Jim Cannon are hoping to use online blogs to amplify their cause.

Cannon, 30, a truck driver from Denver, contributes to a conservative blog group called the Rocky Mountain Alliance.

"We can get people to call senators, get people to talk to their friends and family on the issue," he said. "Blogs defined the last presidential election. If we have half as big an impact on this as we did on the election, I think it will do a lot."

The touch of a button

The liberal advocacy group MoveOn.org organized more than 1,000 house parties after O'Connor's resignation to plan a rapid response urging the Senate not to confirm a nominee with "extremist" views.

"With the touch of a button, we can reach 3 ½ million members and inform people about the positions of any particular nominee," said Jennifer Lindenauer, communications director at MoveOn.org.

The Alliance for Justice has started a Supreme Court Watch podcast, a regular online audio broadcast delivered to computers or portable music players. The group opposed Roberts' nomination to the U.S. Court of Appeals.

In a sign of the Internet's growing influence on political fund raising and advertising, a federal judge has ordered the FEC to create new rules for including Internet communication within campaign-finance regulation. The challenge, the FEC says, is to strike a balance between enforcing financing and disclosure rules for political groups without impeding the free speech of individual citizens.

The proposed rules cover paid Internet advertisements on Web sites but may exempt many individual bloggers and online publications. They would, however, limit the time workplace computers could be used for Internet campaign activity. The FEC is considering results of public hearings in June.

In addition to a platform for interest-group politics, the Web has produced an explosion of information on a subject that once might have seemed arcane. A Washington, D.C., law firm has created the Supreme Court Nomination Blog as a clearinghouse for news, analysis and commentary from both sides.

"Our goal is to be one of the first places people turn to for information about the nomination process," said Amy Howe, partner at Goldstein & Howe, a boutique law firm specializing in Supreme Court cases.

The blog includes a profile of Roberts and analysis of his key opinions.

Services such as PubSub and Technorati let people search for and monitor ongoing Internet discussions. Roberts ranked among the top searches shortly after news of his nomination broke.

PubSub's government feature lists all the Supreme Court justices, along with elected officials, Cabinet members and others. Clicking on a name retrieves the most recent Internet postings that mention the person.

Kristi Heim: 206-464-2718 or kheim@seattletimes.com. Material from The Associated Press is included in this report.

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