About 10 on high court short list

White House seeks to dispel idea that just 3 names remain

April 13, 2010|By Anne E. Kornblut and Robert Barnes | The Washington Post

The White House is pushing back against the notion that President Barack Obama has narrowed his search to a trio of front-runners to fill a seat on the Supreme Court, with several officials saying on Monday that about 10 candidates remain under serious consideration.

In the three days since Justice John Paul Stevens announced his retirement from the court, speculation has centered on three contenders from the last round, including Solicitor General Elena Kagan, U.S. Appeals Court Judge Merrick Garland of Washington, D.C., and U.S. Appeals Court Judge Diane Wood of Chicago.

But administration officials say Obama is still in the early stages of deciding what kind of candidate he prefers, as opposed to a year ago, when Sonia Sotomayor became the early presumptive front-runner to replace outgoing Justice David Souter.

This time, Obama is reviewing a larger number of options, including several who were not part of the process last year, aides said. They added that the president had remained consumed with the health care debate until shortly before Stevens' announcement, making the Supreme Court less of an immediate focus.

As was the case with Sotomayor's nomination, the selection process is expected to take several weeks. The White House is looking for confirmation hearings to take place no later than July, allowing for a vote before the Senate recess in August.

Advisers confirmed on Monday that at least one new name has been added to the president's short list. Judge Sidney Thomas of the 9th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals, a relative unknown but a favorite of liberal groups, is being looked at, a White House official said.

And at least one name has been ruled out. Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton, whose name had been rumored as a possibility, is not among the possible candidates. "The president is going to keep her as his secretary of state," press secretary Robert Gibbs said.

But the White House declined to comment on the prospects for other Obama administration officials, including Kagan and Homeland Security Secretary Janet Napolitano.

If recent history is any guide, Obama might well return to the runners-up from the 2009 vacancy. When the openings on the court come in consecutive years, said David Yalof, a political scientist at the University of Connecticut, the nominee is almost always drawn from the previous pool.

President Ronald Reagan knew he would pick Robert Bork (although the nomination was unsuccessful) in 1987 after he chose Antonin Scalia the year before.

Clarence Thomas was on the shortlist for President George H.W. Bush after he nominated David Souter, and Stephen Breyer had to wait only a year after President Bill Clinton made Ruth Bader Ginsburg his first choice.

"Especially when the president otherwise has a full agenda, they're going to rely on the research done the previous year, for better or worse," Yalof said.

But White House officials said they are looking beyond the shortlist from last time, as well as trying to think creatively about the kind of person Obama would want to nominate — both in terms of ideology and identity.

To date, Obama's judicial nominees, with a few notable exceptions, have been more middle-of-the-road than the left would like. Liberals have also criticized the pace of his nominations, although that appears to be picking up.

But a common theme has been diversity and experience. As opposed to the nominees of his predecessor, George W. Bush, Obama's picks "include proportionately fewer white men, slightly more Hispanics, substantially more African-Americans and Asian-Americans, and more sitting judges," the Brookings Institution's Russell Wheeler said in a report that compares Obama to Bush at the 14-month point of their presidencies. Nearly 70 percent of Bush's appointees during that period were white men; they account for 30 percent of Obama's judicial nominees.

As for timing, administration officials said they expect it to closely track the timetable for Sotomayor, who went almost seven weeks from the moment Obama introduced her as his nominee to the moment she delivered her nationally televised opening statement before the Senate Judiciary Committee on July 13. She was confirmed on Aug. 6.

That was slightly faster than the pace of events in the summer of 2005, when John G. Roberts Jr. had hearings seven weeks after being introduced and was confirmed as chief justice in late September.

By making his announcement so early, Stevens has given the Obama administration and Senate Democrats several choices to make in their selection timeline.

If they want to hold hearings in July, as administration officials would like, Obama is not likely to make public his announcement until the end of May. That would leave many weeks of media speculation about the selection, but it would establish a timeline similar to Sotomayor's, with the goal of hearings in mid-July and a confirmation vote on the one-year anniversary of her confirmation. That is also the day the Senate is slated to adjourn its summer session for a five-week break.

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