TOPICS > Politics

Supreme Court Pick

July 19, 2005 at 12:00 AM EDT

GWEN IFILL: Later tonight, we will know who President Bush has nominated to fill the Supreme Court seat to be vacated by Justice Sandra Day O’Connor. The speculation has been fierce, but the president has left some clues.

Here to take us inside the legal and political decision-making process at the court and at the White House are NewsHour regular Jan Crawford Greenburg of the Chicago Tribune, and Jim VandeHei of the Washington Post.

Jan, what are our best bets who about the president is going to announce later on tonight?

JAN CRAWFORD GREENBURG: Well, this president can look at this nominee and, as he said, he will look at this nominee as a history-making pick. Many people have assumed that that suggests he will nominate a woman or a minority, but the White House is see ago potential history-making pick as a nominee who would change the future and the direction of the Supreme Court.

And that puts the focus back on a group of conservative men who have always been at the top of the White House short list who are highly regarded jurists and who could dramatically change the way the Supreme Court would rule on any number of issues.

GWEN IFILL: Not the women we’ve been hearing about all day? We’ve heard about Judge Edith Clement from New Orleans; we’ve heard about Judge Edith Jones.

JAN CRAWFORD GREENBURG: No. The White House has always said and President Bush has always said he would nominate a nominee in the mold of Justice Thomas and Justice Scalia. And I have seen nothing to suggest that President Bush is not going to follow through with the pledge that he has made during his campaign.

And it’s wrong, I think, to think of this as a history-making pick by focusing on a woman or a minority and certainly the president has said that he would like to nominate the first Hispanic to the Supreme Court. The way that I believe advisors have been suggesting that the White House should consider this pick is this is a chance to make history.

Justice O’Connor was a swing vote. She had the key vote in any number of cases. She often sided with the liberals on key social issues. This is a nomination that can change the direction of the court, the future of the court. That’s more important. That’s the diversity, not the race, not the gender. We’ve moved beyond that in some way.

GWEN IFILL: It’s almost ideological diversity you’re talking about and Attorney General Gonzales who was the talk of the bloggers and everyone else last week —

JAN CRAWFORD GREENBURG: That goes back to he would be an historic pick, the first Hispanic nominated to the Supreme Court. But this is a pick that gives the White House a chance to nominate a person who could change the court for generations to come. This seat, O’Connor’s seat, because of her key vote, her pivotal vote in a number of areas — if a Justice comes in, a conservative Justice who is a reliable conservative, say, someone like John Roberts, Judge John Roberts on the D.C. Circuit, a Judge Mike Luttig on the Fourth Circuit, that could change the direction and the future of the court. That’s history.

GWEN IFILL: Jim VandeHei, forgive me for mispronouncing your name when I introduced you; I know better than that. How has the scene been unfolding at the White House?

JIM VANDE HEI: They’ve been very tight-lipped today. This White House has really been brilliant over the years as keeping all of us guessing on these big picks. We’ve gotten a couple clues about how he’s gone about this. And it’s been mostly behind the scenes interviewing several candidates and talking with a lot of conservative legal scholars outside of the White House seeking their input.

At this point we know there’s probably five or six people in the White House who have known about this since this morning, and they don’t plan on letting any of us know until probably 8:00 today.

I think one thing we have learned from watching this president over the years is that you really just need to listen to what he says to get clues about what he might do. And he has said he wants someone in the mold of a Scalia or Thomas. I think we can anticipate that we’ll see someone like that chosen tonight.

GWEN IFILL: Now, we heard that the president met yesterday evening at the White House with the chairman of the Senate Judiciary Committee Arlen Specter, and we have heard bits and pieces that he has at least been meeting with some of these different candidates for this. And we think that those meetings are now over.

JIM VANDE HEI: Absolutely. I mean, it’s fun to watch Washington in a situation like this because there’s so much speculation about who that pick is going to be. And like I said earlier, very few people actually know.

I think yesterday by having Arlen Specter up to the White House it was a pretty clear sign that we were going to get an announcement today but even Arlen Specter isn’t talking at all about who that might be. I think you’re going to start to see people being alerted in the next couple of hours because this is really going to be a titanic partisan struggle where you have both sides that have been gearing up for years for this ideological and political fight over the courts.

So those people need to be ready and prepared because once that announcement is made at 9:00 we’re going to have two months of a campaign that looks very much like a very bitter presidential campaign in all likelihood.

GWEN IFILL: Jim, did the pace of this election process change at all in the time since last week when Justice Rehnquist announced he would not be stepping aside immediately?

JIM VANDE HEI: Right. I think it made it easier for the White House because they only had to focus on one pick. I think one of the interesting things about the timing is the political environment we’re in right now. You have a president who really came out of the gates with a Social Security plan that has pretty much gone nowhere on Capitol Hill, set an August deadline forgetting an energy plan. It doesn’t look like Congress is going to meet that.

And we have this whole controversy over this leak of a CIA agent’s name which is really brought Karl Rove and other White House officials under scrutiny. So this is a chance for the White House to shift the focus to the courts, where politically the White House feels it has a strong hand. They feel like they look at their internal polls and look at public polling and they see that most people are pretty comfortable with the picks that the president has made in the — and the criteria he has set for choosing his next Supreme Court Justice. I think they’re happy to have the war in Washington, if you will, move to the court.

GWEN IFILL: You and Jim seem to agree on one thing. That’s that the president is going to stay true to his promise to try to pick a very strong conservative for this post. Does that mean that we automatically get a fight over something like abortion?

JAN CRAWFORD GREENBURG: Some people say that that means we’re going to have a fight. And some people have been saying that we’re going to have a fight no matter what. The people have been engaged on this issue we’ve been expecting retirement for months and months.

This wasn’t the retirement, of course, we expected. Justice O’Connor raises the stakes even more because of her pivotal role. And I’d like to say, I mean, many people had expected the president to turn to a woman or to a minority to fill Justice O’Connor’s seat. She of course was the first woman nominated to the Supreme Court —

GWEN IFILL: Laura Bush weighed in.

JAN CRAWFORD GREENBURG: We’ve had some clues and some suggestions in recent weekdays or weeks that perhaps the president would turn to a woman, but I think, when we go back to it and when we look at what this White House has been saying, and looking at and what the president has been saying, he is going to nominate a person who will be a history-making pick, a qualified nominee who will change and affect the direction of the court, not a woman and not a minority necessarily. We’re going to be back to that list I think that we have been looking at.

GWEN IFILL: Jim, how unusual is it for this to become a big primetime rollout rather than a Rose Garden announcement midday like, say, Clarence Thomas was?

JIM VANDE HEI: Very unusual. Usually things are done in a much different format. But this president — especially of late — has really used this ability to talk to the networks and get a national audience to make big announcements.

I mean, you remember not too long ago he wanted to talk about the status of the Iraq War when there was a lot of public criticism about how things are going over there. Now he’s turning to that exact same format to talk about a Justice.

It’s his way of setting the tone of the agenda, of talking directly to the American people and getting his side of the argument out there, knowing full well that both sides are going to really weigh in tonight and especially tomorrow and try to portray this candidate differently than he would like. So I think he wants to be first out of the gate, wanted to keep it secret and wants to be able to get some positive coverage tomorrow before — I think the inevitable flow of fighting that will come.

GWEN IFILL: And, Jan, how significant is it that the White House has been telling anyone who will listen about how extensive their consultations have been with the Senate?

JIM VANDE HEI: The senators have been urging the White House to hear them out and to have this exchange. I think at the end of the day the president is going to make the nomination that he wants to make, and I think that’s what he’s decided. I think that’s what we’re going to see that at 9 o’clock.

And the argument he’s going to make is this is the most qualified nominee. This is the person that is very much the person I said that I would appoint. This is the best person for this job.

GWEN IFILL: Jan Crawford Greenburg and Jim VandeHei, thank you both very much.