The White House is developing a short list of possible Supreme Court nominees so President Bush can move swiftly if a justice retires at the end of June, when the Court breaks for its summer recess, according to sources involved in the selection process.
Bush met with top advisers last month, and they discussed possible nominees if a Supreme Court vacancy occurs.
He told White House Counsel Fred Fielding and other administration lawyers that he wanted to nominate a woman or a minority to the Court, and his legal team has narrowed its focus to a half-dozen contenders, sources said.
Bush Prepares for Potentially Historic Choice
Most of the potential nominees have been well-vetted by the White House, which conducted extensive background checks and interviews in 2005, when it was searching for replacements for Chief Justice William Rehnquist and Justice Sandra Day O'Connor.
The White House is not expecting a retirement, but it wants to be ready if a surprise announcement occurs, sources said.
It's widely considered that the most likely candidates for retirement are liberal Justices John Paul Stevens and Ruth Bader Ginsburg, although both have said emphatically that they do not plan to step down.
The White House typically prepares an informal list of possible replacements every spring in case justices announce they are retiring at the end of the Court's term. But there's more urgency now.
Solid Conservatives Considered
With the heated political climate -- and with Bush's approval ratings still low -- advisers believe they cannot afford any missteps with the Supreme Court if a vacancy were to occur, sources said.
To that end, advisers are focusing on possible nominees who are believed to be solid judicial conservatives and would galvanize the base at a time when Bush desperately needs its support.
Conservatives who have grown disillusioned with Bush on Iraq, spending and immigration believe his nominations of Chief Justice John Roberts and Justice Samuel Alito are the one bright spot of his presidency.
Roberts and Alito have clearly helped move the Court in a more conservative direction this year. But the Court remains closely divided -- 5-4 -- on controversial social issues such as abortion, affirmative action and presidential power, and conservatives don't always carry the day.
The Court now has four solid judicial conservatives in Roberts, Alito and Justices Antonin Scalia and Clarence Thomas. Justice Anthony Kennedy typically sides with them, but not always. One additional vote could turn the Court firmly to the right.
That means the stakes for the next nomination could not be higher -- as both sides are acutely aware.
Owen, Rogers Brown Back on Short List
Leading Senate Democrats are already warning against solidly conservative nominees, and that could make confirmation difficult in the Democratic-controlled Senate.
Still, some of Bush's political advisers believe he would be better off tapping a strong conservative who would rally the base -- especially a nominee with a compelling life story who would be difficult for moderate Senate Democrats to oppose.
In that camp are federal appeals court Judges Priscilla Owen and Janice Rogers Brown. Both were filibustered by Senate Democrats after Bush nominated them as appellate judges and were eventually confirmed after Senate leaders struck a compromise on judicial nominations.
Either could have been a likely replacement for O'Connor in 2005, but leading Senate Republicans told the White House not to nominate them because they were seen as too controversial at the time. Now that both are on the federal bench, the White House has put them back on a working short list.
Of the two, Owen is the best known in the White House and is generally considered less controversial than the more outspoken Brown.
Owen, like Brown, also has gotten high marks from her colleagues on the federal appeals court. But Owen's friendship with Karl Rove could hurt her, especially in a White House vulnerable to charges of cronyism.
The White House also is looking at Chicago-based federal appeals court Judge Diane Sykes, who is considered conservative but less controversial, sources close to the process said. But Sykes is not as well known inside the administration, which is a strike against her, White House sources said.
Bush does not want to repeat the mistake of his father, who nominated the unknown David Souter, believing he was conservative only to see Souter quickly become one of the Court's most reliable liberal votes.
Another prospect who was seriously considered for the O'Connor vacancy also remains in the mix, New Orleans federal appeals court Judge Edith Brown Clement. Clement interviewed with Bush in 2005, when he selected Roberts.
With the focus squarely on women and minorities, the White House also has expanded its search to include judges who were not seriously considered two years ago.
Federal District Judge Loretta Preska, who was nominated by George H.W. Bush, is getting a close look, as is Raoul Cantero, a judge on the Florida Supreme Court.
Cantero became the first Hispanic to serve on the state supreme court when then-Gov. Jeb Bush nominated him in 2002.