WASHINGTON (CNN) – The search for a Supreme Court nominee has been trimmed to about half a dozen candidates by top White House officials, and a decision by President Obama will likely be announced by month's end, two sources close to the selection process tell CNN.
Among the finalists are federal appeals court judges Sonia Sotomayor and Diane Wood, and Solicitor General Elena Kagan. The sources, who asked not to be identified because they were not authorized to speak by the White House, say women make up all but one of the top candidates currently being given serious scrutiny.
Also on the list, a source said, was California Supreme Court Justice Carlos Moreno. The 60-year-old Los Angeles native was not among the early favorites mentioned by legal analysts and the media. White House Press Secretary Robert Gibbs had hinted some of the names being considered would fly under the he political radar. He had been a federal trial judge before his 2001 appointment to California's top court.
A new round of vetting their records is underway by a small group of top staff led by the White House Counsel's office. Vice President Joe Biden, Chief of Staff Rahm Emanuel and Senior Adviser David Axelrod are also extensively involved.
Sources say some administration officials are pushing for an announcement before the Memorial Day weekend, when Congress goes on recess for a week. A bipartisan group of senators met in private with Obama Wednesday about the upcoming vacancy.
"My impression was he [Obama] doesn't want to let it take too long," Sen. Jeff Sessions, the top Republican on the Judiciary Committee told reporters after the meeting.
Sen. Patrick Leahy (D-Vt.), chairman of the committee, which will hold confirmation hearings, refused to offer a timetable for consideration of the nominee. He said that will depend on how soon a choice is named. White House Press Gibbs said the president is hopeful hearings and a vote by the full Senate will be completed by the monthlong August recess. Leahy said he expected the next justice to be ready when the high court returns to work in late September.
Several names on the short list have no judicial experience, say sources, including Kagan. Others with political experience on the short list include Homeland Security Secretary Janet Napolitano and Michigan Gov. Jennifer Granholm. Sen. Claire McKaskill (D-Missouri) was also receiving serious consideration in recent weeks, said sources.
Leading candidates from the federal bench that have been vetted are appeals court judges Merrick Garland from Washington, Ann Claire Williams from Chicago, and Kim Wardlaw from Los Angeles. Sources say the list of finalists may expand depending on face-to-face meetings Obama will have with the current top-tier candidates. The White House has given no public indication whether those personal meetings have concluded. Gibbs has hinted a surprise or two may be on the current working list.
The nominee would replace Justice David Souter who announced he will step down after 19 years on the bench, when the high court term recesses for the summer in late June.
Three of the finalists have mentioned for months as leading contenders for a vacant Supreme Court, long before Obama took office.
Sotomayor - The 54-year-old judge on the 2nd Circuit U-S Court of Appeals would be the first Hispanic justice. She was named a district court judge by President Bush in 1992, then elevated to her current seat by President Clinton. Supporters say that– along with what they call her moderate-liberal views– would give her some bipartisan backing in the Senate. But she has suffered through recent stinging criticism in the media and blogs by those on both the left and right, over perceived concerns about her temperament and intellect. Some Hispanic groups expressed concern after a skit last week on "The Late Show with David Letterman" compared Sotomayor with a noisy Spanish-speaking judge on a popular TV courtroom show that settles petty legal disputes.
Kagan - As the administration's top lawyer when arguing before the Supreme Court, her recent confirmation hearing was a breeze, with leading conservative lawyers voicing their support. She has been touted for her consensus-building skills when recently leading Harvard Law School. Just 49, she has no judicial experience, which some insiders say can be viewed as both a political asset or liability. Sources say Kagan's profile has risen somewhat among White House officials looking at the pros and cons she would bring. Some conservative legal activists privately believe she would be more "reasonable" in her views on executive power than other contenders.
Wood - Considered one of the sharpest minds on the Chicago-based appeals court, she also teaches part time at the University of Chicago, where Wood met former fellow instructor Obama. They have remained casual, but not close friends, since then. At 59, she is among the oldest candidates being given serious scrutiny for the high court.
Sources say the age of the nominee will be a key selection criteria, since justices have lifetime appointments and the longer they serve the greater the potential legacy for the president. "It isn't the main criteria, but certainly the president is looking for a justice who will be an intellectual force on the court for many years to come," said one source close to the selection process.
Obama has told colleagues privately he has great respect for the records of federal appeals judges like David Tatel, Diana Motz, Jose Cabranes, and Amalya Kearse, as well as constitutional scholar Laurence Tribe, but is aware all are at least 65. President Bush's two successful 2005 choices– Chief Justice John Roberts and Samuel Alito– are still in their fifties.