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Obama: 'civil, thoughtful' hearings on new Supreme Court justice

President Obama met Wednesday with key senators of both parties to discuss the nomination and confirmation process of a Supreme Court justice to replace retiring Justice John Paul Stevens.

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Since Justice Stevens announced his retirement, the White House has encouraged discussion of about 10 potential nominees, some of them politicians. But the working assumption is that the top three come from the legal world, beginning with Elena Kagan, the solicitor general of the United States and former dean of Harvard Law School. Ms. Kagan’s relative youth, at age 49, holds out the prospect that she could serve on the court for decades.

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Names being considered

The other two in the top tier are federal appeals court judges – Merrick Garland and Diane Wood. In the political world, Secretary of Homeland Security Janet Napolitano – former governor of Arizona – and Michigan Gov. Jennifer Granholm are reportedly under consideration, but court-watchers don’t see either as having a serious chance at being nominated. Still, both Senators Reid and Leahy have long argued that the court needs to broaden its worldview by including justices from outside the federal judiciary.

One new name has surfaced since last year’s confirmation process: federal Judge Sidney Thomas of Montana. The floating of his name reflects a push to broaden the court from the Ivy League, where all the sitting justices except Stevens received their law degrees. Judge Thomas earned both his undergraduate and law degrees in Montana.

If Solicitor General Kagan is the nominee, that will put special focus on Senate Judiciary Committee member Arlen Specter (D) of Pennsylvania. When Kagan was up for confirmation last year, Senator Specter was still a Republican and voted no.

“I voted against her because she wouldn’t answer specific questions on what kind of cases she would urge the Supreme Court to take,” Specter said on MSNBC Wednesday. “I’ve been concerned that the Supreme Court has been ducking big cases.”

He mentioned the government’s terrorist surveillance program as one example.

But, he added, “I’ll take a fresh look at her as a Supreme Court nominee, but I think that the Judiciary Committee members, myself included, haven’t been, frankly, tough enough on insisting on some answers.”

IN PICTURES: Frequently mentioned Supreme Court possibilities