For Obama, the legal legacy begins with Souter replacement

Photo: Supreme Court Justice Souter to Retire: David Souters Retirement Has Already Sparked Speculation About His Replacement

As President Obama considers how to make the most of a rare opportunity to appoint a Supreme Court justice, he is getting advice from many fronts — including Senate Judiciary Committee leaders and law professors, women's advocates and Hispanic groups. On Sunday, Pennsylvania's just-turned-Democratic senator, Arlen Specter, weighed in as well.

And why not? Supreme Court justices are appointed for life, and they may help determine the law long after a president leaves office. So even as Obama wrestles with economic and foreign policy challenges that could lead to major changes in America, a court appointment could become one of the most significant acts of his tenure.

The appointee who would succeed liberal Justice David Souter is unlikely to shift the ideological balance of the court, but she or he could help set a new tone or bring a different type of leadership to the divided bench.

As Obama and his aides screen candidates to make the first Democratic nomination in 15 years, well-established — and often overlapping — judicial models can guide his choices and shape public expectations.

For example, all nine of the current justices are former U.S. appeals court judges, elevated by presidents (from Gerald Ford to George W. Bush) who followed a familiar script of looking to lower courts for nominees.

During the campaign, however, Obama expressed his preference for a justice with real-world experience in the mode of former California governor Earl Warren, who presided as the court struck down school segregation and helped generate a civil rights revolution.

"I will seek someone who understands that justice isn't about some abstract legal theory," Obama said Friday. "It is also about how our laws affect the daily realities of people's lives."

That view was embraced Sunday by Specter and Sen. Patrick Leahy, D-Vt., key members of the Senate Judiciary Committee, which will question the nominee before the full Senate votes.

"I want the president to pick somebody for all the American people," Leahy said on CNN's State of the Union. "I'd like to see ... someone who has real-life experiences, not just within a judicial monastery."

For a court with seven white men, a black man and a white woman, Obama could opt for a "diversity" candidate. Since Sandra Day O'Connor retired in 2006, Ruth Bader Ginsburg has been the court's only woman, and groups such as the National Women's Law Center are pushing for another female nominee.

Clarence Thomas, named in 1991, is the court's only African-American member, and there never has been a Hispanic or Asian American on the bench. The Congressional Hispanic Caucus and other groups are urging Obama to represent their backgrounds on the high court.

Meanwhile, Republicans such as Utah Sen. Orrin Hatch have said Obama should tap a nominee with appeal across the political spectrum who will not bring "personal preferences to the law." Yet with the Senate at close to 60 Democrats, Obama is unlikely to need a true "compromise" candidate as have some presidents facing a Senate controlled by the opposite party.

Obama, a Harvard law graduate who taught law at the University of Chicago, comes to the task with a larger constitutional vision and a greater understanding of past judicial models than many presidents.

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