The official reason for her trip to the White House today is to announce new fuel efficiency and auto emissions standards. But with a Supreme Court opening to fill, Michigan Gov. Jennifer Granholm's visit has touched off a flurry of speculation that she could be meeting with the president about the possibility of filling that spot.
Granholm's name appears on many speculated short lists, as she's a dynamic and talented politician with strong academic credentials. She graduated with honors from Harvard Law School, clerked on the Cincinnati-based federal appeals court and worked as a federal prosecutor before she went into politics.
But unlike all nine of the current justices, each of whom served as a federal appeals judge before ascending to the Supreme Court, Granholm and several other non-judge potential candidates are not from the so-called "judicial monastery."
Elena Kagan currently serves as solicitor general and is in the top tier of Obama's list for the Supreme Court. Although she has spent most of her career teaching law, she has never served as a judge and has hardly ever even appeared before a judge to argue a case.
Charles Fried, a Kagan supporter who held the solicitor general post during the Reagan administration, called the fact that she has little courtroom experience "just a mechanical thing" that is not important in the larger scheme. "There have been lots of justices who were not judges. She can handle 130 Harvard law students," he said, so "she can handle this wild bunch on the bench."
The Obama administration has refused to comment on potential candidates, but other names on the lips of Washington insiders include Homeland Security Secretary and former Arizona Gov. Janet Napolitano, Massachusetts Gov. Deval Patrick and Washington Gov. Christine Gregoire. Patrick also attended today's White House event, though speculation about his potential rise to the court is less intense.
Rounding out the speculative lists are law professors and lawyers in private practice or employed by corporations, including Teresa Wynn Roseborough, who heads the litigation department of MetLife, Inc., Kathleen Sullivan, former dean of Stanford Law School who is now in private practice, and Pam Karlan, who heads Stanford Law School's Supreme Court Litigation Clinic.
As a candidate for president, Obama repeatedly stated that he wanted to appoint Supreme Court nominees that not only had sharp legal minds, but also individuals with broader life experience. In 2008 he said, "some of our best justices have been people who knew a little bit about how the world works."
He continued, "I want my judges to understand that part of the role of the court is to look out for the people who don't have political power, the people who are on the outside, the people who aren't represented, the people who don't have a lot of money"
One quality in particular he highlighted on the campaign trail and again in confirming the news of David Souter's retirement is empathy.
Despite the current makeup of the court, historically it hasn't been that unusual for presidents to look for candidates off the bench.
William Rehnquist, who was the Chief Justice before his death in 2005, wasn't a judge before taking his place on the court, and neither were former justices Lewis Powell, Hugo Black and Robert Jackson, among others.