WASHINGTON (CNN) - The search for a new Supreme Court justice is moving ahead quickly at the White House with senior staff ready to begin paring down a list of finalists to less than half a dozen candidates, two sources with knowledge of the selection process tell CNN.
President Obama could begin meeting with some of the potential nominees as early as this weekend, said the sources, who spoke to CNN on the condition of anonymity. White House spokesman Robert Gibbs indicated earlier this week those meetings had not yet begun.
Since the candidates would have already had pre-screening interviews with staff led by the White House Counsel's Office, the Obama meetings would most likely not be a grilling about constitutional philosophy, but rather friendly chats, the sources said.
Unlike many past presidents, Obama is already closely involved in the selection process, given his background as a constitutional law professor, the sources said. Vice President Joe Biden is also playing a key role, given his long service on the Senate Judiciary Committee, which will hold the nomination hearings.
After face-to-face meetings, Obama would offer his initial thoughts and may seek for more information, or possibly ask to speak with more candidates. Sources close to the process, said the president will also likely reach outside his inner circle and members of Congress, to get the views of independent legal types. One such person mentioned is Charles Ogletree, a longtime respected professor at Harvard Law School, and a mentor to Obama.
While some administration officials hope for an announcement by Memorial Day, sources tell CNN that a small, senior group of White House officials are taking a careful, meticulous approach, looking closely at each candidate's qualifications.
As far who is on the short list, the sources said the Obama vetting team is aware of recent heavy public pushback against Judge Sonia Sotomayor, considered by many to be a leading candidate. Conservative groups Monday highlighted on-camera remarks from 2005 where the 54-year-old federal appeals court judge said the "Court of Appeals is where policy is made." Then laughing, she said, "I know, I know, this is on tape."
Conservative blogs have cast the remarks as revealing Sotomayor's support for "judicial activism" or legislating from the bench.
Jeffrey Rosen, a law professor and writer for The New Republic, titled his piece this week, "The Case Against Sotomayor," quoting anonymous sources who know her as questioning her smarts and temperament.
Three names mentioned by sources as getting serious attention are U.S. Appeals Court Judges Diane Wood and Ann Claire Williams; and U.S. District Court Judge Ruben Castillo. Each of these judges are Chicago-based, viewed by many as relatively moderate liberals, and whose judicial outlook Obama may find appealing. Also Michigan Gov. Jennifer Granholm is being looked at closely as a candidate outside of the judicial class.
Legal sources continue to say women top the list. "There is a deep diverse bench of highly qualified women candidates, so to speak," said one source. But those sources caution a range of candidates are being considered– male and female.
On the political side, some conservative advocacy groups are quietly urging GOP senators to focus less on abortion and more on same-sex marriage and homosexual rights as the issue to highlight in confirmation hearings. Many conservative activists believe with recent news about several states pushing to give greater rights to homosexual couples, the issue could have greater short-term gain to rally their base.