April 22nd, 2010
03:26 PM ET
4 years ago

Judges, politicians on latest list of high-court contenders

The ever-evolving list of about 10 top contenders for the Supreme Court includes a diverse group of judges and politicians, administration officials tell CNN.
The ever-evolving list of about 10 top contenders for the Supreme Court includes a diverse group of judges and politicians, administration officials tell CNN.

Washington (CNN) - The ever-evolving list of about 10 top contenders for the Supreme Court includes a diverse group of judges and politicians, administration officials tell CNN.

Those in the informal group of candidates have had their personal and professional records scrutinized by White House officials in recent weeks, and within days the names could be narrowed to a group of about three to five finalists, the government sources say.

These sources say three people long mentioned as favorites continue to receive the most attention inside the Oval Office - Solicitor General Elena Kagan and federal appeals judges Diane Wood and Merrick Garland.

President Barack Obama continues his public and private outreach to Senate lawmakers, who will ultimately vote on the nominee to replace retiring Justice John Paul Stevens. The president has said he hopes to make his choice in the next month.

One name that has moved onto the "short list" of leading candidates is Judge Ann Claire Williams of the Chicago-based 7th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals. She works on the same bench as Wood, and was seriously considered last year for the high court vacancy that went to Justice Sonia Sotomayor, who was then a judge in the 2nd Circuit. Administration officials have been interested in her role as a judicial pioneer, and her former career as a schoolteacher.

Officials privately stress the current "short" list could expand slightly, depending on the president's own criteria, as he begins to focus more attention on the vacancy. He already has spoken informally with some
candidates, officials have said, but has not had any in-person, sit-down interviews, which often is the last step before a decision is made.

Here is the latest list of top contenders:


Elena Kagan, solicitor general
Born 1960. Considered by many insiders as the leading candidate. Served in the Clinton White House in various legal and domestic policy positions, 1995-99. Former clerk for Justice Marshall. Has no judicial experience. Nominated for an appeals court seat in 1999, but Republicans held it up without holding hearings. Formerly dean of Harvard Law School, where she named several conservatives to the faculty, earning her favorable bipartisan respect. Has received positive reviews for her current role as chief advocate for the other branches of government before the high court. Of Jewish descent, she was a finalist for the seat that went to Sotomayor.

Judge Diane Wood, 7th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals, Chicago
Born 1950, has sat on the bench since 1995. Considered a moderate-liberal, well-regarded by many legal analysts as a strongly emerging candidate for the high court. Former clerk for Justice Harry Blackmun, and
served in both the Reagan and Clinton Justice Departments. Like her fellow 7th Circuit judges Richard Posner and Frank Easterbrook– both conservative judicial heavyweights, and both of whom were considered candidates for the high court by President George W. Bush - Wood teaches part-time at the University of Chicago. A finalist for the seat that went to Sotomayor.

Judge Merrick Garland, D.C. Circuit Court of Appeals, Washington
Born 1952. Possible compromise choice, considered a relative judicial moderate on the high-profile appeals court (like many Clinton judicial nominees). Four current justices came directly from the D.C. Circuit. Was a former associate deputy attorney general and supervised the criminal prosecution of the 1995 Oklahoma City bombing, which could play well in the post-9/11 environment. His perceived "moderate" views may not sit well with some liberals. Only white male on the "short" list.

Gov. Jennifer Granholm, Michigan
Born 1959. Popular gubernatorial leader and former state attorney general. Originally from Vancouver, Canada, which could raise some political (but not constitutional) concerns. A Catholic, she also attended Harvard Law School.

Janet Napolitano, homeland security secretary

Born 1957. Former Arizona governor and early Obama supporter for president. Also a onetime U.S. attorney and state attorney general. While in private practice, was a lawyer for Anita Hill when she testified in the 1991 Clarence Thomas confirmation hearings for the high court. Spoke at the 2000 Democratic National Convention, while recovering from a mastectomy. Was criticized strongly for her department's initial response - and her public statements - to the Christmas 2009 attempted terror bombing of a Detroit-bound airliner. She told CNN "the system worked." Some commentators have suggested the political fallout from that may take her out of the running for any high court seat or other top administration post. The White House has since voiced strong political support for her. Never married. A finalist for the seat that went to Sotomayor.

Judge Sidney Thomas, 9th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals
Born 1953. A Montana native, has been on the bench since 1996. Worked in his home state on Sen. Max Baucus' first campaign, and Baucus has strongly pushed Thomas for the high court vacancy. He has the modest, middle-of-the-road judicial philosophy Obama may find attractive, combined with a reliably liberal
record. Among rulings he authored was a 2006 decision in Nadarajah v. Gonzales, where Thomas concluded the government illegally detained Ahilan Nadarajah for four years while the Justice Department appealed a grant of asylum. Nadarajah is a member of the Tamil ethnic minority in Sri Lanka and asserted that he was tortured and persecuted by members of the Sinhalese majority.

Leah Ward Sears, former chief justice of Georgia Supreme Court
Born 1955. Had been on the state high court since 1992 until she stepped down last June. An African-American, has many noteworthy "firsts" on her resume. A recognized expert on family law. Currently a private lawyer in Atlanta. Attracted controversy for her involvement in the Institute of American Values, which supports "traditional" marriage, and whose founder opposes gay marriage. Was fined in 2007 for violating state ethics laws when accepting improper campaign contributions. Fun fact: Like her close friend Clarence
Thomas, Sears grew up in the Savannah area (but was born on an Army base in Germany as the daughter of an Army colonel).

Justice Carlos Moreno, California Supreme Court
Born 1948. The only Democrat and only Hispanic on the state high court. Only justice on the seven-member bench to dissent in 2009 when that court upheld Proposition 8, the voter-approved referendum banning gay marriage. Was a leading contender last year in the high court seat that went to Sonia Sotomayor. The Mexican-American judge has been strongly promoted by many Hispanic groups.

Judge Ann Claire Williams, 7th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals, Chicago
Born 1949. Another possible consensus pick. Nominated at age 35 to the U.S. District Court in 1985 by President Ronald Reagan, then elevated to her current job by President Bill Clinton. Labeled by many legal analysts as a moderate who would be the first African-American woman on the Supreme Court. A former inner-city teacher in Detroit, she became the third African-American woman federal appeals court judge. The late Sen. Edward Kennedy in 2005 suggested her name for the high court, in a letter to Bush. Lives in the same Chicago neighborhood as Obama did before the president moved to Washington, and he knows her personally. Her age– she turns 61 this summer– may be a strong consideration against her.

Martha Minow, dean, Harvard Law School
Born 1954. Succeeded Kagan as dean of the prestigious school, and has been on the faculty since 1981. No judicial experience, but clerked for Justice Thurgood Marshall after law school. A recognized expert on family law. Strong Obama connections: He nominated her to the board of the Legal Services Corp. He reportedly said he decided on a career in public service because of his former law professor, whom he said changed his life. And Obama worked at the law firm of Minow's father, where he met his wife, Michelle. Her father is Newt Minow, FCC chairman in the 1960s who famously termed television "a vast wasteland."


Filed under: President Obama • Supreme Court
soundoff (3 Responses)
  1. Brett from Phoenix

    RE: Leah Sears...since when is it "controversial" to support traditional marriage? It might be "controversial" inside a left-leaning news room, but some day even CNNs little Robespierres with cameras will have to wake up to the fact that the majority of the population opposes gay marriage. The divinely ordained family is what has brought America to the prosperity it has enjoyed and Americans (outside of CNN's walls, that is) largely realizes that.

    April 22, 2010 03:52 pm at 3:52 pm |
  2. Marc

    Any of these names, or any other ones, will be considered as innapropriate by the GOP.

    April 22, 2010 04:25 pm at 4:25 pm |
  3. Henry Miller, Libertarian

    "...a diverse group of judges and politicians,..."

    By "diverse," it appears they mean only with respect to race and gender–no conservatives, let alone Libertarians, need apply.

    April 22, 2010 04:28 pm at 4:28 pm |