Senators meet with Bush over court seat

Leaders suggest looking outside judiciary to fill vacancy left by O'Connor

July 13, 2005|By Jan Crawford Greenburg and Jill Zuckman | Jan Crawford Greenburg and Jill Zuckman,CHICAGO TRIBUNE

WASHINGTON - Top Senate Democrats and Republicans told President Bush yesterday that he should consider tapping someone outside the judiciary to fill Justice Sandra Day O'Connor's seat on the Supreme Court, suggesting a U.S. senator or other nominee outside the "judicial monastery" could bring much-needed perspective to the court.

In a breakfast meeting at the White House with Bush, Vice President Dick Cheney and Chief of Staff Andrew H. Card Jr., four Senate leaders said they thoroughly discussed the idea of looking beyond the courts for a nominee.

Seven of the court's nine justices were federal appellate judges before ascending to the Supreme Court, and most of the prospective nominees under consideration by the White House also are federal judges. Two notable exceptions are Attorney General Alberto R. Gonzales and former Deputy Attorney General Larry Thompson, both of whom are being considered to replace O'Connor, according to an administration official and other sources close to the process.

"Look for somebody as a nominee who does not come out of the traditional circuit courts [of appeals]," said Senate Judiciary Committee Chairman Arlen Specter, a Pennsylvania Republican, characterizing one suggestion made to Bush during the meeting. Majority Leader Bill Frist of Tennessee, Minority Leader Harry Reid of Nevada, and Sen. Patrick J. Leahy, a Vermont Democrat and the ranking member of his party on the Judiciary Committee, also attended.

The White House did not disclose any names of possible nominees during the meeting, and the Senate leaders did not present their own lists of names they favored. But Leahy said he suggested a handful of names as examples of nominees who could be confirmed and that the group "thoroughly" discussed the notion of looking outside the bench.

"I'd like to have somebody who takes a fresh look at things," Leahy said.

Reid called it a "tremendous idea" and suggested to reporters after the meeting that Sen. Judd Gregg, a New Hampshire Republican, was an example of someone from outside the bench who would make a good justice.

In replacing O'Connor, a former Arizona legislator and state court judge, Specter said Bush should keep in mind how politicians on the court have helped achieve consensus on controversial issues. He and Leahy referred to the court's unanimous 1954 decision in Brown vs. Board of Education that ended segregation as an example of how consensus builders can make a difference.

Specter also said a nominee from outside the judiciary may have a more modest view of the court's authority to strike down federal laws. The current court, led by Chief Justice William H. Rehnquist, has not been shy about overturning acts of Congress and has scaled back Congress' power as it relates to the states in a number of areas. Conservatives have applauded those decisions, but Specter suggested that Bush should seek a nominee who would be more careful in his approach.

"A concern that I have, and that I expressed this morning, was that the court is deciding all of the cutting-edge questions, and that they're, with impunity, overruling acts of Congress because Congress hasn't thought it through," Specter told reporters after the meeting. "But somehow the court has thought it through. Who are they to say that they can think it through, and we can't?

"If they had a little more practical experience and didn't work so much within the footnotes and the semicolons, you might have a little different perspective," he said. "And I'd like to see that added to the court."

The White House also got advice from first lady Laura Bush.

"I would really like him to name another woman," she said in response to a question during an interview on NBC's Today show from Cape Town, South Africa, where she is traveling. "I admire and respect Sandra Day O'Connor, but I know that my husband will pick somebody who has a lot of integrity and strength."

The Chicago Tribune is a Tribune Publishing newspaper.

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