Obama faces political puzzle in naming Scalia successor

Kathleen Hennessey
Associated Press

Washington  — For most presidents, choosing a Supreme Court nominee is a puzzle. For President Barack Obama, the chance to pick a successor to Justice Antonin Scalia is more like a Gordian Knot.

As the White House carries out a rare election-year search for a nominee, the president’s lawyers and top advisers are sorting through a tangled web of political, legal and personal factors.

A smart pick and nomination strategy could determine whether Obama gets to reshape the highest court for the next generation. The wrong pick could cede that opportunity to his successor.

Democrats view this as a moment decades in the making. Recent Republican presidents have gotten more chances to fill seats, tilting the court in to the right.

“The Supreme Court has not reflected where the American people have been on issues,” said Gregory Craig, who served as White House counsel early in Obama’s first term. “This is the first opportunity in many, many years to bring the court more in line with the American people.”

For Obama, the clock is ticking. The sooner he picks a name, the longer he has to try to force the Republican-led Senate to hold a vote.

At the heart of Obama’s dilemma is how to manage the fierce Republican opposition to his decision to name a nominee. Within hours of Scalia’s death on Saturday, Republicans began arguing Obama should let his successor fill the open seat.

Obama brushed that argument aside, but it is undoubtedly weighing on his decision. Given the election-year timing, Obama would likely have been inclined to name the nominee most likely to appeal to Republican senators.

But if Republicans object to Obama even trying to fill the post — and remain united in that position —the president may see little point in bending too far to appease the other party. He may feel the pull to focus more on ginning up his own party’s base. Then key question becomes: What are the chances of getting a vote?

This wouldn’t be “the first time Republicans have come out with a lot of bluster only to have reality sink in,” White House spokesman Eric Schultz said Monday.

Schultz said the president will use the same criteria he used when he nominated Sonia Sotomayor, who became the first Hispanic on the court, and Elena Kagan, then-solicitor general.

In those instances, and in his appointments to lower courts, Obama has shown a desire to expand ethnic and racial diversity and to elevate more women.

Possible Obama nominations:

Attorney General Loretta Lynch: Before Obama promoted her, Lynch was a U.S. attorney for a key district based in Brooklyn. An African-American woman has never served on the Supreme Court.

Homeland Security Secretary Jeh Johnson: Johnson has serious credentials in many critical areas of the law, having served as the Pentagon’s general counsel and as a federal prosecutor.

California Attorney General Kamala Harris: Harris is a longtime prosecutor and rising Democratic star who has drawn occasional comparisons with Obama.

Minnesota Sen. Amy Klobuchar: She is a former prosecutor and member of the Senate Judiciary Committee.

Utah Sen. Orrin Hatch: The Republican senator would be nominated only if Obama decided it would be better to pick a candidate Democrats didn’t love than risk a Republican successor making the choice for him.

Sri Srinivasan, U.S. Court of Appeals for the District of Columbia Circuit: Born in India, Srinivasan clerked for former Justice Sandra Day O’Connor — a Republican.

Merrick Garland, chief judge, U.S. Court for Appeals of the District of Columbia Circuit: He is a Harvard Law School graduate whose name has long been in the mix. He’s considered a moderate judge and has experience on the D.C. circuit

Paul Watford, U.S. Court of Appeals for the Ninth Circuit: An African-American, Watford once served as a law clerk to Ginsburg, and worked as a federal prosecutort.

Jacqueline Nguyen, U.S. Court of Appeals for the Ninth Circuit: Nguyen would be the first Asian-American on the Supreme Court. She worked as an assistant U.S. attorney and a judge in California before Obama nominated her to federal courts.

Patricia Millett, U.S. Court of Appeals for the District of Columbia Circuit: Millett had experience in the U.S. Solicitor General’s office.

Robert Wilkins, U.S. Court of Appeals for the District of Columbia Circuit: Wilkins was a public defender before being appointed by Obama to federal positions

Jane Kelly, U.S. Court of Appeals for the Eighth Circuit: A former public defender, was unanimously confirmed to the St. Louis-based court.

Associated Press