The White House is pushing back against the notion that President 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 B. 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 H. 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's 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 may well return to the runner-ups
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
President Ronald Reagan knew he would pick Robert H. Bork (although
the nomination was unsuccessful) after he chose Antonin Scalia the year
before. Clarence Thomas was on the shortlist for President George H.W.
Bush when he nominated David H. Souter, and Stephen G. 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
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 and 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
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 -- in the past 25 years, only
justices Byron White and Harry Blackmun announced their intention to
retire earlier in the calendar year -- Stevens has given the Obama
administration and Senate Democrats several choices to make in their
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
Staff writer Paul Kane contributed to this report.