Every Monday morning for months, veteran Washington lawyer C. Boyden Gray has plotted strategy via a conference call with the heads of groups that want to ease the confirmation of President Bush’s judicial nominees. He has also spent many hours raising millions of dollars for the cause.
The eccentric Gray stood at the center of what had threatened to become a historic confrontation between the political parties. The former White House counsel was as responsible as anyone for the attempt to change Senate rules to smooth the way for approval of the president’s judicial nominees. Yesterday evening, his efforts were upended by an eleventh-hour compromise that apparently has averted the showdown. But Gray won a partial victory because filibustering of federal judgeship nominations will now be much more rare.
Gray was recruited for the task of fighting judicial filibusters two years ago by Republican Sen. Trent Lott. The Rules Committee chairman was angry and frustrated that Democrats had blocked the elevation of fellow Mississippian Charles W. Pickering Sr. to the federal appeals court. “We’ve got to stop the filibuster of federal judges,” Lott told the Mississippi Manufacturers Association in Jackson.
Back in Washington, Lott asked Gray to help quarterback the effort. Lott “wanted to try to set up something that could combat the well-organized groups on the left like People for the American Way and the Alliance for Justice,” Gray recalled. “I was happy to do it. I don’t see how you can demand 60 votes for a judicial nomination. These are the things you have to do if you believe in them.”
Gray formed the Committee for Justice with the additional encouragement of Karl Rove, Bush’s top political strategist, and set about the difficult job of raising funds from corporate sources. Business executives had shied away from judgeship battles, believing they involved social issues — primarily abortion — rather than the economic issues they cared about. “It’s not an easy sell,” Gray conceded.
But he persisted and managed to make headway with groups such as the U.S. Chamber of Commerce. Gray persuaded executives and corporations to open their wallets by arguing that federal judges increasingly will determine the fate of class-action lawsuits that have been the bane of business for years.
He was assisted in this enterprise by his mentor, former president George H.W. Bush. Gray had worked for the elder Bush when he was vice president and president. In turn, Bush opened his Houston home for a cocktail party that yielded $250,000 and also persuaded Bush’s grandson George P. Bush to headline a fundraiser in Washington.
With the money, the Committee for Justice has established a rapid-response team that keeps in regular contact through e-mail with 1,000 journalists and an additional 500 activists. It also has bought commercials, including one controversial newspaper ad that featured a black-and-white photo of a sign on a courthouse that read “Catholics Need Not Apply.” Its implication was that Democrats opposed the appeals court nomination of Judge William Pryor because of his fervent religious beliefs — a charge that Democrats heatedly denied.
Such tactics have outraged Gray’s opponents. “Boyden Gray has always represented well the interests of the Bush family and the corporate community,” said Ralph G. Neas, president of People for the American Way. “But with each passing year, he seems more like a Lee Atwater political type than a former White House counsel.”
The lanky Gray has cultivated an iconoclastic image during his many years in Washington. Even though his policy leanings are libertarian, he admits to being obsessed with promoting alternative fuels. He once drove a Chevrolet Citation powered by ethanol or methanol to make his point. He is also a member of a group, which includes John D. Podesta, who was chief of staff to President Bill Clinton, that supports moving the United States away from a reliance on imported oil.
Gray’s daughter, Eliza, once owned as a pet a potbellied pig named Penelope, which Gray would sometimes walk near his mansion in Georgetown. “Pigs have a great impact on people,” he said drolly.
His family’s history in America dates back to the early 1700s, when his Scottish relatives came ashore. One of his ancestors, Jacob Rafael Cohen, was a rabbi of the synagogue in Philadelphia during the Revolutionary War.
His family fortune comes from banking, tobacco, publishing, cable and radio in his native North Carolina. His great-grandfather, James Alexander Gray, was chief executive of Wachovia Bank. His grandfather, Bowman Gray, decided not to join the family business and instead moved up the ladder to become chief executive of R.J. Reynolds Tobacco Co. His father, Gordon Gray, was a lawyer, newspaper publisher and national security adviser to President Dwight D. Eisenhower.
Clayland Boyden Gray (he did not want to be called Clay Gray, so he uses only the first initial) went to Harvard and was first in his class at the University of North Carolina School of Law. He clerked for Chief Justice Earl Warren. During his years in government, Gray helped negotiate the 1991 Clean Air Act amendments. As a partner at Wilmer Cutler Pickering Hale & Dorr, he has done legal work and lobbying for utility and drug companies.
Outside of his law practice, he has worked diligently for conservative causes. He is a board member of Progress for America, the nonprofit group that spent millions last year trying to prevent Sen. John F. Kerry (D-Mass.) from winning the White House and recently bought ads (for which Gray helped to collect money) in favor of eliminating filibusters in judicial confirmations. Gray is also co-chair of FreedomWorks, a nonprofit that pushes for lower taxes and less regulation.
Partly to help with the many fundraising events at his Georgetown home, Gray maintains a two-person staff. One of the Democrats’ top fundraisers, Smith Bagley, lives a block away and like Gray can trace his fortune to tobacco. Gray said his grandfather succeeded Bagley’s grandfather as R.J. Reynolds’s chief executive.
Gray’s connection with judicial nominees is more recent. As the White House’s top lawyer, he oversaw one of the ugliest confirmation fights ever — for Supreme Court Justice Clarence Thomas — and is therefore an expert on the process.
© 2005 The Washington Post Company