Washington (CNN) - Any new member to the most exclusive club in American government needs a keen ability to get along with the other eight members, two members of the U.S. Supreme Court said with a vacancy looming.
Justices Clarence Thomas and Stephen Breyer testified before a congressional budget hearing Tuesday and were asked about the pending retirement of Justice John Paul Stevens. President Barack Obama is currently deciding whom to nominate as the 89-year-old justice's replacement.
Thomas and Breyer refused to comment on specific candidates or professional criteria they would want in a new justice. But Thomas said certain personal qualities were desirable.
"What we look for, those of us who have been there awhile, is someone we can get along with, who is an honest person, a person who will be
conscientious, a person who will realize it's a small group of us making hard decisions," said Thomas, who joined the Court in 1991. "I don't think we have ever discussed, at least during my tenure, how a particular person would vote. And that's the way we operate."
Breyer, who joined the court three years after Thomas, was more philosophical. "You have to know not just what those [law] books say - that's part of it. And what all those cases say, and what the briefs say - that's part of it. But you have to have what I would call a certain kind of imagination, because you have to be able to think yourself beyond the room, into the lives of the people whom these decisions will actually affect."
Those remarks track to some degree what Obama has said he seeks in a judge. When Stevens announced Friday he was leaving the high court bench after nearly 35 years, the president praised his wisdom and the strong character the Chicago native brought to his work.
"I will seek someone in the coming weeks with similar qualities," said Obama. "An independent mind, a record of excellence and integrity, a fierce dedication to the rule of law, and a keen understanding of how the law affects the daily lives of the American people. It will also be someone who, like Justice Stevens, knows that in a democracy, powerful interests must not be allowed to drown out the voices of ordinary citizens."
The White House has offered no timetable on when he will make decision, but government sources tell CNN they expect an announcement by early May.
The president, in his State of the Union, criticized the courts' conservative majority for a ruling in January that loosened previous congressionally mandated restrictions on so-called "corporate" spending in federal elections. The decision opened up spending for a range of corporations, unions and advocacy groups.
Some liberals have urged the White House to choose an outspoken liberal to the high court, which they hope will elevate the political debate over campaign finance reform and health care, issues the federal courts will likely continue to decide in coming years.
Breyer predicted to House lawmakers the recent, massive health care reform law passed by Congress will someday reach his court.
"Now you, I gather, have passed a law with 2,400 pages," he told panel members, referring to the health care bill. "If you had passed a law with 2,400 pages it probably has a lot of words. And I would predict as a test of the theory that three or four years today no one is every going to ask us again why we have so few cases."
Breyer had been asked why the Supreme Court's caselaod had been relatively light in recent years. The 71-year-old justice explained his colleagues usually only accepts cases where lower courts have disagreed over a particular issue, giving the Supreme Court a chance to offer the final word. A Democratic White House and Congress promoting and passing laws may now have a greater chance of being overturned in coming years by federal courts that have a majority of Republican appointees. Six of the nine current justices on the Supreme Court were named by GOP presidents.
In that vein, Breyer offered a humorous "reality check" on court challenges, citing the example used by the renowned French writer Michel de
Montaigne in 1584.
"This king, he wrote, was so stupid he thought by writing a lot of laws he was going to reduce the number of lawyers because he's explained
everything," said Breyer. "Doesn't the king know every word in a bill is the subject for an argument in court in a decision?"