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Wild-Card Candidates Emerge in Supreme Court Guessing Game

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Secretary of State Hillary Clinton is pictured during a lunch for President Obama in Prague April 8. (Reuters Photo)

With President Obama being pulled every which way on criteria for his next Supreme Court nominee, some unusual names are starting to surface that -- if chosen -- would make the rest of the summer a lot more interesting on Capitol Hill

Secretary of State Hillary Clinton joined the crowd Monday morning when Utah Sen. Orrin Hatch, a Republican member of the Senate Judiciary Committee, said he'd heard her name discussed. 

"I heard Senator Hillary Rodham Clinton's name today and that would be an interesting person in the mix," Hatch said on NBC's "Today" show. 

He wouldn't say whether he'd support her, but he said he likes Clinton. Senate Judiciary Committee Chairman Patrick Leahy, D-Vt., added that "she's done a good job for the country, not just for Democrats." 

Tea leaves, anyone? 

The White House splashed cold water on the Clinton idea Monday afternoon. Press Secretary Robert Gibbs said Obama plans to keep Clinton as secretary of state, and that she's doing a fine job in that post. 

But Leahy is among several top senators pressing the Obama administration, at least in television interviews, to steer away from the conventional pool and look at candidates who are not sitting judges. The last Supreme Court justice confirmed to the high court without a judicial background was William Rehnquist in 1971. 

"I wish we could have some more people outside the judicial monastery," Leahy said on NBC's "Meet the Press" on Sunday. 

Picking a wild-card Supreme Court justice in an election year might not be the president's modus operandi, but he's facing considerable pressure at least to look at the edges of the box, if not outside it. 

Sen. Joe Lieberman, I-Conn., told "Fox News Sunday" that he was "encouraged" by the possibility that Obama could choose someone "who is not a sitting judge at this time." 

Perhaps Clinton would fill the bill. Plus the Supreme Court would give her a place to cool her heels for, say, the rest of her life, ensuring Obama doesn't endure a Ted Kennedy-esque Democratic challenge from within in 2012. 

But the scuttlebutt was rejected at the highest levels Monday. In addition to the White House denial, State Department spokesman P.J. Crowley said Monday morning that Clinton probably doesn't even know she's been mentioned. 

"I'm sure she appreciates Senator Hatch's comments, but right now she is focused on her current job," he told Fox News. 

Clinton is not the only Cabinet member who's popped up on the list of possibles. Homeland Security Secretary Janet Napolitano continues to be floated -- she was considered a candidate last year before Obama picked Sonia Sotomayor to replace David Souter -- though Napolitano could be the Republicans' least favorite Cabinet official because of her perceived understatements about the threat of Islamic terrorism. Attorney General Eric Holder is also inevitably a backburner possibility -- though he's a bit tied up figuring out what to do with the ringleaders of the Sept. 11 terror attacks. 

Solicitor General Elena Kagan and Diane Wood, a judge on the 7th Circuit Court of Appeals, are the two names most commonly mentioned as successors to Justice John Paul Stevens, who announced on Friday that he will retire at the end of this term. D.C. Circuit Court of Appeals Judge Merrick Garland has also emerged as a top-tier candidate. Obama is said to have about 10 names on his short list. 

But Lieberman on Sunday suggested Obama look way outside the box. 

"Maybe we need somebody who's been a law professor, or a lawyer, a practicing lawyer, or a person in public office like a governor or a senator," he said. 

In terms of elected officials, Michigan Gov. Jennifer Granholm and Massachusetts Gov. Deval Patrick -- who is close to Obama -- are on the not-so-short list. 

And several professors, some more inflammatory than others, have been mentioned. 

Among the most controversial would be Cass Sunstein, the former University of Chicago and Harvard law professor who leads Obama's Office of Information and Regulatory Affairs. 

Sunstein has taken some unusual positions, such as arguing that people should be able to bring suit on behalf of animals in animal cruelty cases. 

Obama could also try to make history again by nominating an openly gay candidate to the high court. Former Stanford Law School professor and dean Kathleen Sullivan and Stanford Law professor Pam Karlan have been mentioned as possibilities. Both are also known for their liberal-leaning writings, legal work and commentary. Karlan, for instance, co-authored the 2009 book, "Keeping Faith with the Constitution," with appellate court nominee Goodwin Liu -- who has met resistance from Republicans in part over the contents of that book, which says constitutional principles must be "open to adaptation" as society changes. 

Another history-making choice would be Leah Ward Sears, the former chief justice of the Georgia Supreme Court. If chosen, she would be the first black woman on the Supreme Court. 

Kagan also has an academic background -- she was the dean of Harvard Law School. But Kagan is not considered a highly controversial choice. She was well-regarded for her performance at Harvard and for reaching out to conservatives. She has a thin paper trail on past positions, but that's because she has never been a judge -- something that would likely please several senators who, like Leahy, say they're looking for a change. 

If Obama is spoiling for a fight, though, but doesn't wish to pull out an exotic resume, Wood would set up an explosive confirmation battle -- Wood has dissented against bans on partial-birth abortion and is known for her strong opinions on the Chicago-based 7th Circuit Court of Appeals. 

"He's got a lot of picks ... there's no doubt about it," said Jay Sekulow, chief counsel with the American Center for Law and Justice. He said a Republican-led filibuster on the Supreme Court nominee is unlikely, but a nominee like Wood would generate at least "serious talk" of mounting one. 

Sen. Lamar Alexander, R-Tenn., the third-ranking Republican in the Senate, warned Sunday that Republicans aren't looking for any surprises. 

"If the president picks someone from the fringe instead of from the middle, or if he picks someone who will apply their feelings instead of applying the law, then that might be an extraordinary case" which could warrant a filibuster, he said on "Fox News Sunday."