Possible Court Nominees Pose a Quandary for Bush
President Bush has narrowed down his candidates for replacing Chief Justice William Rehnquist, who is expected by many to retire next week (or maybe not), to three, including the controversial Attorney General Alberto Gonzales.
President Bush’s advisers are focusing their search for a new Supreme Court justice on a trio of candidates who could present the president with a choice that would help shape his legacy — pick a reliable conservative to anchor the court for decades or go for history by naming the first Hispanic chief justice at the risk of alienating his base.
While the cancer-stricken Chief Justice William H. Rehnquist has not publicly signaled his decision, many in the White House and around Washington expect him to announce his retirement at the end of the court’s current term next week, opening the nation’s top judicial post for the first time in 19 years and setting up a potentially savage nomination battle.
White House officials have prepared for the prospect by culling long lists of possible candidates, poring through old cases and weighing a variety of factors from judicial philosophy to age. Bush and his inner circle have had tightly held deliberations and no one can say for sure whom he might pick for chief justice, but outside advisers to the White House believe the main candidates are federal appeals Judges John G. Roberts and J. Michael Luttig and possibly Attorney General Alberto R. Gonzales.
A Gonzales appointment would be a politically appealing “first” that could ease the confirmation process among Democrats and help expand the Republican base, according to some strategists. But many conservative leaders see him as too moderate on issues such as abortion and affirmative action, and a Gonzales-for-Rehnquist trade would effectively move the court somewhat to the left.
Gonzales makes no sense as a Chief Justice appointment. He’s the worst of all worlds: a bruising confirmation battle plus a weakening of Bush’s ideological position on the Court. Rehnquist’s replacement would ideally be Antonin Scalia or Clarence Thomas, a known quantity who, while controversial, would ultimately win and guide the Court in the right direction. Failing that, a younger conservative judge from one of the Circuit Courts of Appeal makes sense.
If Bush is set on appointing Gonzales, it would be more appropriate to wait for the retirement of Sandra Day O’Connor or John Paul Stevens. While they’re both Republican appointees, they’re both significantly to the left of Rehnquist. Putting Gonzales into one of those slots, especially Stevens’, would be an upgrade. Tactically, too, it would make more sense. The Democrats are likely to fight much harder against a very conservative appointee replacing a more liberal justice. Further, an additional year or two would give Gonzales time to re-establish his reputation by good work in his current office, moving his rather minimal associaton with Gitmo further into the background.