WASHINGTON – The death of William H. Rehnquist (search) opens up the chief justice seat on the Supreme Court for the first time in two decades. How President Bush fills that opening raises some interesting questions.
The president could elevate a current justice to the top chair. Would he pick one of his favorite Supreme Court justices — Antonin Scalia (search) or Clarence Thomas (search)? Would the president pick someone new? Or would he turn to the current nominee, John Roberts?
Bush selected a conservative, white male to replace retiring Justice Sandra Day O'Connor, so he will face pressure to name a woman or a Hispanic next time. When O'Connor leaves, Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg will be the sole female on the court.
Bush plucked Roberts from an ever-changing slate of about a dozen candidates, including five Bush interviewed in person. Court watchers have been combing this slate for hints about whom Bush might pick next. Besides Roberts, Bush interviewed federal appellate judges Edith Clement and J. Harvie Wilkinson. The identity of the other two interviewees remains unclear.
The list of those who sat down for face-to-face talks with Bush, however, was not necessarily the president's short list. He said he needed to interview only candidates he did not already know. There has also been speculation that Bush already knew he wanted Roberts and was interviewing other candidates in case he was faced with filling another seat.
Before Bush nominated Roberts, almost six in 10 Americans polled said it was important for him to nominate a woman. Laura Bush urged her husband to appoint a woman to fill O'Connor's seat. And the retiring O'Connor, the first female justice, said Roberts was "first-rate" but not a woman.
Politics will play a role, too. If Bush wants to put an ultraconservative on the high court, his nominee will have to weather a confirmation brawl in the Senate. With approval ratings the lowest of his presidency, Bush may not be ready for that.
Others mentioned as serious contenders for O'Connor's spot included Larry Thompson, a former deputy attorney general who is a top lawyer for PepsiCo; Edith Jones, a judge on the 5th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals in New Orleans; Samuel Alito, a federal appellate judge in Philadelphia; Michael Luttig, a federal appellate judge in Richmond, Va., and Mary Ann Glendon, a Harvard University professor.
Possible Hispanic candidates who have been mentioned include: Chief Judge Danny Boggs, a Cuba native, of the federal appeals court in Cincinnati, Florida Supreme Court Justice Raoul Cantero III and attorney Miguel Estrada.
Hoping Bush would name a Hispanic to the court, the Hispanic National Bar Association delivered a list of eight other candidates to the White House counsel's office in June.
On that list: Attorney General Alberto Gonzales; appeals court judges Jose Alberto Cabranes, Julio Fuentes, Emilio Garza and Sonia Sotomayor, district court judges Victor Marrero and Federico Moreno and California Supreme Court Justice Carlos Moreno.