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Successor To Souter Anticipated By October

President Barack Obama interrupted his press secretary's briefing Friday to announce that he had just gotten off the phone with Supreme Court Justice David Souter, who had called to announce his retirement. Video by AP

The pending retirement stoked immediate interest from both liberal and conservative activists. Both sides have begun mobilizing supporters in anticipation of a pitched confirmation battle, even though the appointment of a new justice is unlikely to alter the balance of a court that is split fairly evenly between liberals and conservatives. Souter most often votes with the court's liberal bloc, and Obama's nominee is likely to share that ideological outlook.

Conservative activists held conference calls, worked to raise the millions of dollars they would need for a public relations campaign targeting a nominee, and sought to activate networks of supporters to oppose Obama's choice, saying the criteria laid out by the president go beyond what is necessary for choosing a justice.

"He says he wants to appoint judges who show empathy, but what does that mean?" said Wendy Long, chief counsel to the Judicial Confirmation Network. "Who do you have empathy for? If you have empathy for everybody, you have empathy for nobody."

With the Senate on the verge of a 60-vote filibuster-proof Democratic majority, conservative groups said they see little chance of derailing a nominee they find objectionable. But armed with polling that they say shows the vast majority of Americans favor judges who "interpret the law as written" without regard to their view and experiences, they see the Supreme Court nomination as a potential rallying point.

Liberal advocacy groups urged Obama to nominate a justice who will defend the powerless. "President Obama has said that the Supreme Court must play a role in protecting people who are 'vulnerable in the political process: the outsider, the minority, those who are vulnerable, those who don't have a lot of clout,' " Michael B. Keegan, president of People for the American Way, said in a statement. "We agree, and urge the President to nominate a Justice who will defend the rights of individual Americans against powerful government and business interests."

Senate Republicans acknowledged that they have work to do in preparing for any struggle over a nominee. Their first order of business will be determining who will lead them in the nomination battle as the ranking member of the Judiciary Committee, after Specter defected this week and vacated that post after 4 1/2 years as the panel's top Republican.

The White House, meanwhile, is moving expeditiously toward settling on a nominee. Officials said there are fewer than 10 names on a list of would-be nominees, which will be winnowed as candidates are further vetted in the coming weeks.

Most often mentioned as possibilities are two appeals court judges, Sonia Sotomayor of New York and Diane P. Wood of Chicago, along with Obama's new solicitor general, Elena Kagan. Other names include Massachusetts Gov. Deval L. Patrick and Georgia Supreme Court Chief Justice Leah Ward Sears.

In preparation for a vacancy, Obama's senior staff met Thursday to begin organizing a formal selection process, although officials said the meeting was held before Souter's retirement plans were first reported by National Public Radio.

Souter, who has been on the court since October 1990, was nominated by President George H.W. Bush in July 1990 to the seat vacated by William J. Brennan Jr. The Senate confirmed him on Oct. 2, 1990.

Souter had long hoped to leave the bench and had spoken openly about his desire to return to his native New Hampshire while in good health. He had also decided that he would not do so if other court retirements appeared likely, an informed source said. He thought that multiple departures would be too disruptive for the nine-member court.

But when it became clear that justices John Paul Stevens, 89, and Ruth Bader Ginsburg, 76, who battled pancreatic cancer this year, had no plans to leave the court, Souter decided it was time to go.

"He said, 'I don't want to be here forever, so I'm going to go now,' " a Souter friend said.

Staff writers Dan Balz and Scott Wilson contributed to this report.

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