Obama Seeks 'Common Touch' in His Supreme Court Nominee

Short list narrows, buzz intensifies over the Supreme Court vacancy.

May 25, 2009— -- President Obama is poised to choose a Supreme Court nominee as soon as Tuesday, or possibly by the end of the week.

The president is expected to tap a woman to fill retiring Justice David Souter's spot.

Sources close to the selection process say the short list's leading contenders are federal appeals court judges Sonia Sotomayor and Diane Wood, and Solicitor General Elena Kagan.

But after some comments from the president over the weekend, the top candidates on the short list may be dwindling.

"What I want is not just ivory tower learning. I want somebody who has the intellectual firepower but also a little bit of a common touch and a practical sense of how the world works," Obama said in an interview over the weekend, during which he made clear that his nominee will have to bring more to the bench than mere legal expertise.

"Those criteria of common sense, practicality, a sense of what ordinary Americans are going through every day … putting that in the mix, when judges are looking at cases before them, is very important," he said.

Obama also stressed that his court pick must have empathy among his or her chief qualities, and be able to serve as a counter balance to Justice Antonin Scalia.

"You have to be able to stand in somebody else's shoes and see through their eyes and get an idea of how the law might work or might not work," the president said.

These recent comments by the president point the focus to two front-runners: Sotomayor and Wood, because they both bring significant judicial and life experience to the table.

Sotomayor, 54, is a graduate of Yale Law School who, if picked, would be the first Hispanic on the court. She grew up in a New York housing project and then went on to pursue the highest levels of education. In 1991, Sotomayor was appointed by President George H. W. Bush to the Federal District Court in Southern New York and now serves as a federal appeals court judge.

Wood of the U.S. Court of Appeals for the 7th Circuit in Chicago, would also bring life experience to the bench, and is an intellectual heavyweight. A highly regarded liberal judge, Wood taught at the University of Chicago with Obama and is one of the leading experts on international trade.

During Wood's tenure at the University of Chicago, she was pregnant and unable to take any time off because the school didn't have a pregnancy leave policy. Wood was the only female faculty member at the school. The judge, now 58, has three children.

While Kagan is an intellectual powerhouse, it can be argued that she does not have quite the same compelling life story that the president stated he would like in a Supreme Court justice. Additionally, some have said that Kagan, a former Harvard Law School dean, has no real experience in the courtroom, having served primarily in academic and policy-making positions.

The White House has been tight-lipped during the selection process, but word is that the president has not yet decided.