Sunday, October 30, 2005

Luttig, Alito contenders as Bush mulls court pick


Luttig, Alito contenders as Bush mulls court pick

By Caren Bohan

WASHINGTON (Reuters) - President George W. Bush on Saturday was narrowing his choices of Supreme Court nominees to replace Harriet Miers as Republicans said the short list consisted of highly credentialed, solidly conservative judges.

Among the candidates most talked about were appeals court judges Michael Luttig and Samuel Alito. Bush, who is spending the weekend at his Camp David retreat, was expected to unveil his choice within days.

A source close to the selection process who spoke on condition of anonymity said avoiding a battle with Democrats, who have warned Bush about picking a right-wing activist, would not be the president's top priority.

"What we know from the Miers nomination is that people on all sides of the political spectrum wanted the highest quality, and that's what the president will deliver," the source said.

"I think it will be extremely difficult for Senate Democrats to oppose someone who is extraordinarily well qualified and who shares the president's judicial philosophy," the source added.

Conservatives are eager for a conservative in the mold of justices Antonin Scalia and Clarence Thomas to replace the retiring Sandra Day O'Connor, a moderate conservative and often pivotal swing vote on the divided court.

Luttig, 51, a judge on the 4th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals in Richmond, Virginia, worked as a clerk for Scalia when Scalia was an appeals court judge.

He helped in the effort to get Thomas and Supreme Court Justice David Souter -- both nominated to the high court by Bush's father -- confirmed by the Senate. Luttig also has worked in the Justice Department and private practice.

Alito, 55, is sometimes given the nickname "Scalito" -- a comparison to Scalia, who shares his Italian heritage as well as his reputation for conservatism and a strong intellect. He is a judge on the 3rd U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals in Philadelphia.


The decision comes as Bush seeks to embark on a fresh start after a series of problems exposed a lack of sure-footedness by normally disciplined White House aides.

The latest blow to a president whose approval ratings have already fallen to all-time lows was Friday's indictment and resignation of top vice presidential aide Lewis Libby in the CIA leak investigation.

Larry Sabato, professor of politics at the University of Virginia said the president might reach out to his conservative supporters by generating "a competing headline" to get the focus away from the leak investigation.

"He needs to restore his Republican base and this is the way to do it," Sabato said of the court pick.

In addition to Luttig and Alito, Bush is also said to be looking at appeals court judges Michael McConnell, Edith Jones and Alice Batchelder.

Priscilla Owen and Janice Rogers Brown are also possibilities, although the two judges -- who were named to the appellate court by Bush -- were initially blocked by Senate Democrats before making it through on a compromise deal.

The list Bush is reviewing is similar to the one he focused on just before the surprise pick of Miers on October 3.

Miers, who withdrew her candidacy on Thursday, is with Bush at Camp David advising him in the deliberations. Her candidacy for the Supreme Court triggered a revolt by conservatives who thought the White House counsel and longtime friend of the president lacked the credentials and clear record needed to move the court firmly to the right.

White House spokesman Scott McClellan told reporters on Friday that Bush was already "familiar with a number of potential nominees and so he has a foundation to start with."

The writings and rulings of whomever Bush chooses will be looked at closely for hints on their views of contentious social issues like abortion.

In a letter to Bush, Senate Minority Leader Harry Reid, a Nevada Democrat, and Vermont Sen. Patrick Leahy, top Democrat on the Senate Judiciary Committee, urged him not to pick "an activist" with an ideological agenda.

(Additional reporting by Steve Holland)