Obama signals Supreme Court announcement could come soon

 | Updated: Mar 10, 2016 at 3:36 PM
In his search for a Supreme Court nominee, President Barack Obama is zeroing in on a small group of appellate court judges whose bipartisan credentials and traditional judicial pedigree the White House hopes will increase pressure on Republicans vowing to block whomever Obama nominates in an election year. Photo by Jonathan Ernst/Reuters

President Barack Obama is zeroing in on a small group of appellate court judges for a Supreme Court nominee. Photo by Jonathan Ernst/Reuters

WASHINGTON — President Barack Obama on Thursday signaled that his announcement of a Supreme Court nominee could come soon, saying the nation’s highest court needs to operate at full strength.

Obama did not say when he would reveal his choice to succeed the late Justice Antonin Scalia, who died last month. Senate Republicans have promised to ignore the nominee.

READ MORE: Meet the shortlist of justices who could replace Antonin Scalia

“I think it’s important for me to nominate a Supreme Court nominee quickly because I think it’s important for the Supreme Court to have its full complement of justices,” he said during a White House news conference with Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau.

Obama said he wants an “outstanding jurist” with “impeccable legal credentials, who, by historical standards, would not even be questioned as qualified for the court.”

In the hours after Scalia’s death in mid-February, Senate Republican leaders pledged to block any Obama nominee, saying the president who is elected in November should get to make that pick.

“So in terms of who I select, I’m going to do my job,” Obama said. “And then my expectation is going to be will the Senate do its job as outlined in the Constitution?”

Obama brushed aside the notion that the contentious confirmation process would limit his field of potential choices. His advisers planned to discuss the vacancy at the White House on Thursday with Democrats on the Senate Judiciary Committee.

“I don’t feel constrained in terms of the pool to draw from or that I’m having to take shortcuts in terms of the selection and vetting process,” he said.

In his search for a successor to Scalia, Obama is zeroing in on a small group of appellate court judges with largely traditional credentials and a history of bipartisan backing.

That suggests the White House plans to challenge the Republican Senate to block a nominee whose pedigree might have paved the way for a relatively easy confirmation, if the fight weren’t playing out in an election year.

Among the candidates in Obama’s top tier are, according to a source familiar with the selection process:

  • Judge Sri Srinivasan of U.S. Court of Appeals for the District of Columbia Circuit.
  • Merrick Garland, chief judge on the same court.

  • Judge Paul Watford of the 9th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals.

Ketanji Brown Jackson, a district court judge in Washington, is also under consideration, although a less likely option, said the source, who was not authorized to publicly discuss private White House deliberations and spoke on condition of anonymity.

The judges’ inclusion on the short list was first reported by National Public Radio, which also named Judge Jane Kelly of the 8th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals as a finalist being interviewed by the president.

The emerging list, which the White House says is not final, seems in line both with Obama’s personal and political aims.

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As he has in his past two nominations, Obama appears drawn to candidates with traditional resumes — Supreme Court clerkships, prestigious posts in government and stints at major law firms.

The list also shows the president grappling with whether to add racial or gender diversity to the court.

Srinivasan, 49, would be the first Indian-American on the court, while Watford, 48, would be the third African-American to hold a seat. Brown Jackson, 45, would be the first African-American woman.

The White House has stressed that the nominee will have “impeccable” credentials, suggesting that person will have a record so sterling it will shame GOP senators into backing down.

Obama’s consideration of Garland appears to fit that approach. Garland, a white 63-year-old with an Ivy League, East Coast background, would not add diversity to the court. But with a reputation as a judicial moderate and with broad respect in Washington, Garland could put maximum pressure on some GOP senators to crack from leadership opposition.

Both Srinivasan and Watford come with some bipartisan endorsement. Srinivasan was unanimously confirmed to the bench in 2013. Watford’s confirmation vote was 61-34.

As Obama appointments, neither comes with long records on the bench, leaving their judicial philosophies somewhat ambiguous.

On the short list, only Kelly, a former public defender in Iowa, did not follow the traditional ladder to the highest court.

The risks associated with her experience have already emerged. In recent days, conservative groups raised questions about Kelly’s work securing a plea deal for a man facing child pornography charges. After two decades as a criminal defense lawyer, similar cases are likely in her background.

Associated Press White House reporter Kathleen Hennessey wrote this report.