In Court Pick, Obama Seeks to Be Bold but Not Provocative

By Dan Balz and Robert Barnes
Washington Post Staff Writers
Sunday, May 10, 2009

As President Obama searches for a replacement for Supreme Court Justice David H. Souter, those who know him best think he is looking for a rare combination: a pragmatic barrier-breaker who will be a distinguished jurist and whose nomination will cool the partisan warfare that has marked recent confirmation battles.

White House officials say Obama regards the Supreme Court nomination as a seminal decision that will help put a stamp on his presidency. His first months in office have been marked by a willingness to act boldly on domestic and international issues, and he may be expected to bring that same kind of ambition to filling the Souter vacancy -- up to a point.

In private conversations and public comments, Obama has made clear that he wants a justice whose intellect, life experience and temperament will shape the court's future.

"He's less eager to send a message than to send a great justice," said White House senior adviser David Axelrod. "The people he's considering have something in common. They're rigorous and well qualified. But they all offer different qualities beyond that. He'll make a decision at the end of the process as to what combination of qualities he favors. He's not working off a set of specs."

Another senior White House official, who spoke on the condition of anonymity to more freely discuss internal deliberations, said, "This is not going to be a bomb-thrower." Obama "may ultimately decide on a pick that is distinguished in being the first something. But I think they will be a pragmatist above all."

One Democratic official who has discussed the court with Obama said: "My sense, for a variety of reasons, is that he would want the first one to be a home run. I don't think he will play it safe by picking just a bland nominee on the basis that the person would be easy to confirm."

Obama has begun to narrow his choices. A knowledgeable source outside the White House said the list of candidates who are being put through a thorough vetting numbers six. Most outside observers think that the president is almost certain to pick a woman, and the four thought to be under the most serious consideration are Judge Sonia Sotomayor of the U.S. Court of Appeals for the 2nd Circuit, Judge Diane P. Wood of the U.S. Court of Appeals for the 7th Circuit, Solicitor General Elena Kagan and Michigan Gov. Jennifer M. Granholm (D).

But White House officials cautioned that public speculation may be overlooking several strong candidates. "Not all the names that are being talked about are out there," Chief of Staff Rahm Emanuel said.

White House officials hope to finish most of the vetting soon, but presidential interviews with prospective candidates are not likely to begin this week, one official said yesterday. Obama is scheduled to discuss the vacancy Wednesday at a meeting with Senate Judiciary Committee Chairman Patrick J. Leahy (D-Vt.); Sen. Jeff Sessions (Ala.), the new ranking Republican on that panel; Senate Majority Leader Harry M. Reid (D-Nev.); and Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.).

Many officials said they expect a relatively quick decision. "We didn't start flat-footed," Emanuel said.

The president has much to consider in choosing a successor to Souter. On the surface, appointing a liberal will reinforce the ideological balance on social issues that marks the current court -- four consistent liberals, four consistent conservatives and Justice Anthony M. Kennedy in the middle.

But whoever he selects is likely to differ greatly from the 69-year-old Souter, whose opinions and jurisprudence were known for being meticulous but not sweeping.

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