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.

Alex Brandon/AP
President Obama and Vice President Joe Biden discuss the vacancy left by the retirement of Supreme Court Justice John Paul Stevens with Sens. Jeff Sessions, Patrick Leahy, Harry Reid, and Mitch McConnell in the Oval Office of the White House Wednesday.

The formal nomination process for the next Supreme Court justice kicked off Wednesday, as President Obama met with Senate leaders from both parties to urge a smooth and timely confirmation process.

Last year, when the Senate confirmed Sonia Sotomayor to the high court, the four senators sitting with him in the Oval Office on Wednesday “worked very cooperatively on what I considered to be a smooth, civil, thoughtful nomination process and confirmation process,” Obama said before the meeting.

“My hope is, is that we can do the exact same thing this time,” Obama added. He said the nominee’s name will go to Capitol Hill by the end of May, if not sooner.

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Before the press pool was ushered out, a reporter asked Obama if he would be willing to nominate someone who did not support a woman’s right to choose abortion. The president said he did not have any “litmus tests,” but added, “I will say that I want somebody who is going to be interpreting our Constitution in a way that takes into account individual rights, and that includes women’s rights.”

Obama meets key senators

The president has been holding informal phone conversations with prospective court nominees, administration officials say, and will soon reach out to other senators for their input on his court selection. The meeting Wednesday with Senate majority leader Harry Reid, minority leader Mitch McConnell, Judiciary Committee chairman Pat Leahy, and the committee’s ranking Republican, Jeff Sessions, was not designed to be a name-floating session, but rather an opportunity to talk process.

The administration has made clear it hopes to confirm the new justice by the start of Congress’s August recess. Last year, now-Justice Sotomayor was nominated on May 26 and confirmed by the August recess.

Justice John Paul Stevens is retiring at the end of the current court term early this summer, and the White House wants to give the new justice time to prepare for the next term, which begins in October.

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.

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.”

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