Post Politics: Replacements for Souter, Biden and Swine Flu, More

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Michael A. Fletcher
Washington Post White House Reporter
Friday, May 1, 2009; 11:00 AM

Discuss the latest news about the Obama administration with Washington Post White House reporter Michael A. Fletcher.

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washingtonpost.com: Michael will begin chatting around 11:20 ET. We apologize for the delay.

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Michael A. Fletcher: My apologies for the late start. Caught up here in planning coverage of Justice Souter's impending resignation. Let's chat!

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Court Labels: We have a Supreme Court filled with Justices who cover the political spectrum from extreme far right all the way to the center. No one on that court could charitably be called a liberal, yet the media persists in delineating the court as four conservatives, four liberals and Kennedy in the middle. Why?

Michael A. Fletcher: The labels, particularly for liberals, are relative ones. And it seems on the most divisive social issues the justices divide along those lines, leaving Justice Kennedy as the swing voter. So it is an easy--and not totally inaccurate device--that we in the press use. But I'll say this--it drives the justices batty, because they don't see themselves that way.

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Virginia: Seems to me the conservatives will be thrilled to get Souter off the bench. Would an even more "liberal" Justice tilt the court to the left? Or has Souter been a reliable liberal Justice; hence, no real balance of power will take place?

Michael A. Fletcher: I suspect that there will not be a swing in the court with Souter--unless somehow whoever is appointed proves to be more "conservative" than Obama calculates. So the likelihood is that the balance of the court will remain unchanged once a new justice is in place.But then, Souter was appointed by George H.W. Bush, and many conservatives have been disappointed in his work on the bench.

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Spartanburg SC: So is Biden's trip to Bosnia etc. White House retribution for his latest goof on travel tips?

Michael A. Fletcher: Funny. No, ethnic tensions have been rising once again in Bosnia and Vice Presidetn Biden knows a lot about the region. He was one of the main instigators of U.S. intervention there during the Clinton years. So I imagine this will be an important fact-finding mission for the administration.

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Poplar Bluff, Mo: Michael thanks for the chat. I read the Post's article on the the known favorites to take Justice Souter's spot on the Court. I did not see any Hispanic-American jurists mention. What are the chances of the President appointing a Hispanic-American to the Court? Thanks.

Michael A. Fletcher: I know Sonia Sotomayor, a federal appeals court judge and Yale Law grad who is of Puerto Rican descent,is frequently mentioned as a possibility.

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Arlington, Va.: Because the GOP Senators do not have the votes to filibuster an Obama nominee, do you expect them to take the high road as they did in the Ginsburg and Breyer nominations or take the low road as the Democrats in the Senate have done going back to the Bork confirmation hearings? It would seem to me that taking the high road would be the more prudent political course given that they don't have the numbers to stop any Obama nominee.

Michael A. Fletcher: Interesting point. But I suspect conservative activists will be pressing GOP senators to oppose any Obama nominee they don't like, not because they win but because it can be a rallying point for their cause. They will also see themselves as staking a claim for their principles. But we'll see.

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Manhattan, New York: Is there even an inkling that any of the five "conservative" justices could be looking to get out anytime soon or any of them have significant health issues that could lead to retirement?

Michael A. Fletcher: No word on that. Until Justice Souter did not name any clerks for next term, the speculation about possible resignations centered on Ginsburg and Stevens, who are both considered "liberal" justices. But these things often arise suddenly.

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New York, NY: With Souter's news today, I finally know why Democrats are paying good money to run Specter as a Democrat! I'm a little shocked and appalled that they would purchase Specter's Supreme Court votes this way, but don't tell me that's not what's going on here, Michael. Plain as day, isn't it?

Michael A. Fletcher: Is it? I don't know that Democrats would even need Specter's vote to win confirmation for an Obama nominee, given their numbers in the Senate. I think a filibuster would be an unlikely event.

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Richmond, VA: Do you think that the process of finding a replacement for Souter will help to galvanize and unite the Republicans, since Obama will almost certainly be under a lot of pressure to name a liberal to the Supreme Court--someone whose judicial philosophy will be out of sinc with many conservatives and independents?

Thank you.

Michael A. Fletcher: Hard to say. It seems to me that for all the importance of and talk about these nominations, high court nominations are tough issues around which to rally broad public interest. The nominations of both Roberts and Alito caused a lot of angst among liberal activists, and there were predictions of Battle Royales, that never really panned out. Plus the balance of the court is not at stake now. The biggest fight seemed to come when President Bush tried to appoint his White House counsel Harriet Miers to the court, and that pushback came from conservatives who did not trust her credentials. But we'll see.

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New justice: There has been speculation that the court might benefit from having a justice with more real world experience; i.e., someone who had run for office or served in a non-judicial branch of government. Is that unlikely given that President Obama taught constitutional law?

Michael A. Fletcher: That is a view that Obama has expressed as well. For all his bookishness, the president seems to value practial experience above all.

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washingtonpost.com: Coming up at noon: Supreme Court reporter Robert Barnes on Justice Souter's Retirement, Likely Replacements on Supreme Court.

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Boston: Hi Michael,

Have we entered a new age of hypersensitivity? The economy has always had ups and down, but the current down turn is continually compared to the worst financial disaster in our history. It is the same with the swine flu stories. In an average year 39,000 people die of the flu while only a few deaths have been attributed to this one yet all we hear about is a comparison to wort flu epidemic ever. Are we now a nation of big babies?

Michael A. Fletcher: I don't know about that. But we're probably underinformed on some things, such as the annual death toll from the flu. But we also know most of those who die during normal flu seasons are the elderly and otherwise vulnerable. Pandemics caused by new flu strains have the potential to kill millions, so sensitivity is probably in order here.

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Anonymous: How does the vacancy impact the rest of Obama's agenda?

Michael A. Fletcher: I don't think it does, assuming that the administration does not mishandle the appointment of a replacement.

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Wokingham, UK: Does the Italian involvement in the rescue of Chrysler mark a major defeat for protectionism?

Michael A. Fletcher: If nothing else, it speaks to the futility of protectionism.

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Michael A. Fletcher: Gotta run. Again, sorry for the shortened session. Have a good weekend.

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Editor's Note: washingtonpost.com moderators retain editorial control over Discussions and choose the most relevant questions for guests and hosts; guests and hosts can decline to answer questions. washingtonpost.com is not responsible for any content posted by third parties.


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