White House in no rush to pick court nominee

Timing: By slowing down the process, Bush can shield a candidate from scrutiny.

July 11, 2005|By Gail Gibson | Gail Gibson,SUN NATIONAL STAFF

The White House signaled last week that it is in no hurry to name its pick for the first Supreme Court vacancy in more than a decade, a strategic slowdown that legal and political analysts say should help President Bush to more finely shape one of his most lasting legacies.

By running out the clock, possibly until next month, the White House can better protect its nominee from weeks of intense scrutiny, while also appearing deliberative. Already, the absence of a nominee has deflated the frenzied rhetoric across the political spectrum.

"By delaying it, you let all that stuff dissipate. You let the steam out," said Trevor Parry-Giles, a political science professor at the University of Maryland who has written about rhetoric and Supreme Court nominations. "That seems to be the big bogeyman in the picture here - the interest groups. If that's the entity you're trying to trump, you do that by not giving them the name."

A delay of a few more weeks, or even a few more days, also might buy enough time for the White House to learn whether Chief Justice William H. Rehnquist intends to retire - handing President Bush a broader opportunity to reshape the court and reconfiguring the politics for the nomination process.

Rehnquist, who is 80 and suffering from thyroid cancer, has given no public clues about his plans. But that has not cooled the months-long speculation that he is likely to step down soon after 33 years on the court, the past 19 as chief justice.

Washington was abuzz Friday with rumors that Rehnquist's retirement, or possibly a retirement from Justices John Paul Stevens or Ruth Bader Ginsburg, was imminent. But the day passed with no word from the chief justice and no departures.

Some risks

As it considers, and delays, picking a replacement for O'Connor, the White House faces some risks. Some leading conservatives filled last week's void by making it known that they would oppose Attorney General Alberto R. Gonzales, Bush's longtime friend and adviser, as too moderate.

The bombing attacks in London on Thursday offered a stark reminder of how quickly the nation's attention can be diverted, or a politician's popularity can rise or fall - all factors that can subtly influence a high-profile nomination process. Michael Greenberger, a University of Maryland law professor who worked in the Clinton-era Justice Department, said he does not expect a long wait.

"A month in politics can be a lifetime," Greenberger said. "I may be thinking, `If I am in their shoes, I may get a second pick.' But you don't know that."

Fast decisions

In recent history, Republican administrations have not hesitated in making their Supreme Court nominations. President Ronald Reagan nominated Sandra Day O'Connor 19 days after Justice Potter Stewart announced he was retiring in June 1981.

When Chief Justice Warren E. Burger stepped down in 1986, after giving the White House notice, Reagan said the same day that he would elevate Rehnquist to the chief's job and nominate Antonin Scalia to the vacant seat.

Under Bush's father, the White House nominated Clarence Thomas four days after Thurgood Marshall announced his retirement in 1991. Unsuccessful candidate Robert H. Bork was nominated five days after Justice Lewis F. Powell Jr. retired in 1987.

The nomination process slowed under President Bill Clinton, who took 87 days to nominate Ginsburg in 1993 and 38 days to nominate Stephen G. Breyer the next year. In both cases, the nominees were considered to be consensus picks and moved easily through Senate confirmation.

Bush said last week that he would not be rushed, telling reporters during a stop in Denmark: "This is a very important selection, and I understand its importance. I will take my time."

"I want the person confirmed and sitting by the time the court meets again in October," Bush said, offering his only timetable. "In other words, that's the backstop, and we'll work backwards to determine what is best for the Senate calendar to get the hearing and to get the vote, up or down, on the floor of the Senate."

Bush said he was reviewing the background of several candidates, but the White House has offered no hints about how far along the vetting is, or who appears likely to make the cut.

Former Tennessee Sen. Fred Thompson, who was tapped by the White House to help steer the nominee through the Senate, said the process could be quicker than suggested by the White House - enabling him to return to his job as a central figure in the television drama Law & Order.

"Surely, goodness, this is not going to last long enough to make me give up my show," Thompson said on CNN. "Fortunately, we get most of the summer off. And if it pours over into that, we can make adjustments and make it work."

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