Bush Pledges Wide Search for Court Seat

President Bush talks to his Cabinet. After the meeting, he mused about drawing
President Bush talks to his Cabinet. After the meeting, he mused about drawing "good speculation" about his next Supreme Court nomination. (By Chip Somodevilla -- Getty Images)
By Peter Baker and Jo Becker
Washington Post Staff Writers
Wednesday, September 7, 2005

President Bush vowed yesterday to "take a good, long look" at a "wide open" list of candidates before deciding whom to nominate for a second open seat on the Supreme Court, as both sides girded for twin confirmation battles and recalibrated strategies after the dizzying events of recent days.

The casket of the late Chief Justice William H. Rehnquist was laid in repose in the Great Hall of the Supreme Court, borne by a cast of pallbearers that included his former clerk and would-be successor, John G. Roberts Jr. Some influential Democrats signaled that Roberts's ascension increased their eagerness to press him on his record -- particularly on civil rights, which they said has taken on new salience in the wake of Hurricane Katrina.

"What the American people have seen is this incredible disparity in which those people who had cars and money got out and those people who were impoverished died," Sen. Edward M. Kennedy (D-Mass.) said in an interview . The question for Roberts, he said, is whether he stands for "a fairer, more just nation" or for "narrow, stingy interpretations of the law to frustrate progress."

Bush, who tapped Roberts on Monday to replace Rehnquist, suggested that he will take his time finding a new candidate for the seat of retiring Justice Sandra Day O'Connor, which was originally supposed to go to the appellate judge. Aides said they expect no announcement this week as Washington focuses on the damage wrought by Hurricane Kristina.

At the same time, Bush playfully hinted he could choose his friend Alberto R. Gonzales, a prospect that reignited consternation among conservative groups skeptical of the attorney general's politics.

"The list is wide open, which should create some good speculation here in Washington," Bush told reporters after a Cabinet meeting, generating laughter. With a sly look, he added: "And make sure you notice when I said that, I looked right at Al Gonzales, who can really create speculation."

Whether or not the president actually intends to nominate Gonzales, who would be the first Hispanic on the court, that lighthearted remark crystallized the renewed battle within the Bush camp over the selection of an associate justice -- a virtual replay of the fight that preceded Roberts's original nomination in July, pitting the Republican right against the White House.

At the same time, having already chosen a white man for the high court, Bush came under pressure from within his party to make diversity a priority. Republican Sens. Arlen Specter (Pa.), Kay Bailey Hutchison (Tex.) and John Cornyn (Tex.) all advised the president to consider a woman or a member of a minority. O'Connor and first lady Laura Bush have both previously stated a preference for a second woman on the bench as well, while Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice smiled broadly yesterday when Bush was asked whether he would name a female nominee.

With O'Connor's pending departure, the court would be left with one woman, Ruth Bader Ginsburg, and one minority, Clarence Thomas. "Two women are, I think, a minimum," Specter said, though he added he does not favor a quota.

Complicating the picture is the political aftermath of Katrina, which analysts say has left Bush weakened amid recriminations over a slow, ineffectual initial response. Some analysts speculated that Bush might avoid a provocative conservative in favor of a less ideologically pure nominee, possibly Gonzales. But White House advisers scoffed at the notion, suggesting that fundamentally misunderstands Bush's nature.

Conservatives lobbied against shifting course because of Katrina. "The court is a long-term thing," said William Kristol, the influential editor of the Weekly Standard. "It's crazy to mess up your long-term legacy to possibly help him with a short-term PR problem. I think Gonzales would be a disaster."

Some Republican strategists reason that the hurricane may actually work in their favor in that the public has no appetite for a fiery, partisan battle over the Supreme Court. "People are in no mood for a circus," said a senior administration official who spoke anonymously because of the sensitivity of the situation. "The country is dealing with a terrible tragedy. The American people want a dignified process."

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