Outlook for Bush's Next Supreme Court Pick

Watching Washington

Now that John Roberts has been confirmed as chief justice of the Supreme Court, attention turns to President Bush's next nominee for the court. It's a choice that's likely to ignite a fierce battle between Republicans and Democrats. Host Melissa Block talks with NPR's Nina Totenberg about Thursday's events and what lies ahead.

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MICHELE NORRIS, host:

From NPR News, this is ALL THINGS CONSIDERED. I'm Michele Norris.

MELISSA BLOCK, host:

And I'm Melissa Block.

The United States has a new chief justice. John Roberts was confirmed by the Senate today, 78-to-22. And later Roberts was sworn into office at a White House ceremony presided over by Justice John Paul Stevens. NPR's legal affairs correspondent Nina Totenberg is here to talk with us about today's Senate vote and prospects for the next Supreme Court nomination, which could come as soon as tomorrow.

And, Nina, first, let's talk about the vote: half of the Democrats voting for John Roberts and half against. What patterns did you see there?

NINA TOTENBERG reporting:

Well, Democrats running for president, by and large, voted against the nominee. Democrats from big industrial states in the Northeast and the Midwest and on the far left coast, they voted against the nominee. But, conversely, Democrats from the West and the South supported the nominee. And the difference is that the base--labor, civil rights groups--that's essential to those big industrial areas. It's essential to those running for president; not as essential for the Southern and Western senators.

BLOCK: And, Nina, some Democrats have said what they really care about is the next nomination for the justice who will succeed Sandra Day O'Connor. They've thrown down a gauntlet in a sense.

TOTENBERG: Yes. They've even talked already about having a filibuster, which would trigger the so-called nuclear option by Republicans. And don't forget, Republicans may not be unified next time either. Already the two senators from Maine and Senator Chafee from Rhode Island have sent out signals that their votes shouldn't be taken for granted. And if there's enough opposition, then, of course, there wouldn't be any need for a filibuster. We saw that in the Bork vote. You can just defeat a nominee; that is conceivable.

BLOCK: The president really faces a political crunch here, Nina, in choosing this next nominee.

TOTENBERG: Yeah, it's something of a dilemma for him because if he satisfies his base really well--that is, he picks somebody who has a clear record on a lot of social issues, reversal of Roe vs. Wade, a record on gay rights and other things--well, he's almost guaranteed them to unify the Democrats and even possibly to bring in some Republican opposition. So for him, it's a difficult choice. He doesn't want to alienate the base. He's not in the strongest position now. He's in something of a crunch, as you said.

BLOCK: And there is a lot of talk about whether he should name a woman or a minority to that seat.

TOTENBERG: Well, he's replacing Justice O'Connor, and so even Mrs. Bush has said she would like it to be a woman.

BLOCK: Well, let's think about some names here, Nina, and let's start with the women. Who's on the short list?

TOTENBERG: Well, I don't know who's on the short list. Anybody who tells you who--that they know who the president is really considering, they're lying. So there are a whole bunch of women judges: Edith Jones, Janice Rogers Brown, Priscilla Owen, Karen Williams, Edith Clement; even some outside possibilities that nobody's really ever heard of before: Consuelo Callahan from the 9th Circuit. All of those get mentioned. Where they fall in the probability scale is something else. And today we had an additional name thrown in, and that's the president's White House counsel, Harriet Miers. A lot of people think that may be something of a head-fake, but she's been with him a long time, and he trusts her.

BLOCK: You mentioned a couple names in there, Nina, of people who've been filibustered for years: Priscilla Owen, Janice Rogers Brown. These were names that were part of the deal when the Senate avoided the nuclear option before. They'd be very controversial if they came up again.

TOTENBERG: And the Democrats have sent a clear signal--and even some Republicans privately--that that would be big trouble. And the buzz has subsided about them. I don't know whether the buzz is indicative of reality or not, though.

BLOCK: Male minorities? What are you hearing?

TOTENBERG: The leaders are probably Alberto Gonzales, the attorney general, and Larry Thompson, who served in the first Bush administration--that is, from 2001 to 2004--as deputy attorney general. He's an African-American, he's very well thought of, has a lot of connections to Democrats. So that's another possibility.

BLOCK: And what about the white men?

TOTENBERG: Oh, there are those guys, and they are highly qualified, distinguished conservatives: Michael McConnell, J. Michael Luttig, J. Harvie Wilkinson. But we don't hear much about them anymore.

BLOCK: NPR's Nina Totenberg, thanks a lot.

TOTENBERG: Thank you.

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