AUDIE CORNISH, HOST:
One of the most important things a president can do is appoint justices to the Supreme Court. Those picks can affect social policy for a generation. Donald Trump released his list today of who he would consider for the highest court - 11 names. He didn't commit to naming one of the 11 to replace the late Justice Antonin Scalia, but he did say he planned to use it as a guide for filling as many as three other seats that could come open during the next president's tenure. NPR legal affairs correspondent Nina Totenberg has been studying the list. She joins us in the studio. And Nina, how would you describe these 11 names?
NINA TOTENBERG, BYLINE: Well, it depends who you ask. Progressive groups call them extremists, who, in the words of Nan Aron, president of the liberal Alliance for Justice said they would do terrible damage to the liberties and protections most Americans now take for granted. And White House Press Secretary Josh Earnest said, quote, "I would be surprised if there are any Democrats who would describe those individuals as consensus nominees." Those are the words Republicans once used to describe President Obama's nominee to the court, Merrick Garland. Garland, of course, has been sitting in limbo for months now because Republicans have refused to hold a hearing on his nomination. Now, in contrast, conservative scholars and conservative Senate Republicans welcome the list as - let me quote somebody else - Goldilocks - just right.
CORNISH: All right, so tell us the background of these people and kind of where this list came from.
TOTENBERG: Well, six are federal appeals court judgments - all very conservative and all appointed by President George W. Bus - and five state Supreme Court justices. In March, Trump said he would pick from a list compiled by the conservative Heritage Foundation, and there is some overlap from that list. I think five of the men and women on this list were on the Heritage list. Some of the names on the list were controversial when they were nominated even for the federal appeals courts that they now serve on, like William Pryor from Alabama, who called Roe v. Wade the worst abomination in the history of constitutional law, but who also helped to force Chief Justice Roy Moore off the Alabama Supreme Court when Moore refused to obey a court order to remove a monument to the Ten Commandments from the courthouse. So that said, most of the names are anything but what I would call household names.
CORNISH: Is there anything that surprises you about this list?
TOTENBERG: Actually, there is. If I were to have given you my list of the most likely people to be on such a list, probably they would've been Brett Cavanaugh, a judge on the U.S. Court of Appeals for the District of Columbia - very well-respected, very conservative - Paul Clement, who served as solicitor general in the Bush administration - the George W. Bush administration - and who now is sort of the go-to person for Republicans and conservatives and attacked ObamaCara, et cetera, et cetera - and Jeffrey Sutton on the Sixth Circuit Court of Appeals in the Midwest, a former Scalia clerk - perhaps not as conservative as the other two, but still very conservative.
CORNISH: And we know Donald Trump has them on his list, but are these folks also supporters of Donald Trump's campaign?
TOTENBERG: (Laughter) No, they're not. One of them, Judge Diane Sykes, a federal appeals court judge in the Midwest, was previously married to Wisconsin conservative talk show host Charlie Sykes, who was a never-Trumper.
CORNISH: And so is Trump committed to the list?
TOTENBERG: He's not stuck with it. It's just a guide. So whatever's a guide, he can get rid of. And at the moment, he served his purpose of trying to unite the Republican Party and to say to all the various factions of the elites, I'm with you. I do what you like, too.
CORNISH: That's NPR's Nina Totenberg. Nina, thanks so much.
TOTENBERG: Thank you.
NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by Verb8tm, Inc., an NPR contractor, and produced using a proprietary transcription process developed with NPR. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of NPR’s programming is the audio record.