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Obama's high court choice could be Hispanic, woman

Associated Press | 5/6/2009, 9:40 a.m.

WASHINGTON — President Barack Obama pledged last week to name a Supreme Court justice who combines “empathy and understanding” with an impeccable legal background to succeed liberal David Souter, whose abrupt retirement announcement set off speculation the next justice could be a woman, a Hispanic or both.

Obama, who will be making the first high court nomination by a Democrat in 15 years, pointedly referred to his plan to have “him or her” on the bench in time for the Supreme Court’s session that begins the first Monday in October.

“I will seek someone who understands that justice isn’t about some abstract legal theory or footnote in a case book. It is also about how our laws affect the daily realities of people’s lives,” said the president in a surprise appearance in the White House Press Room moments after speaking with Souter by telephone. Word of the impending retirement had leaked last Thursday night.

Obama promised to consult with Republicans and Democrats alike on his choice to replace Souter.

Souter’s retirement after almost two decades of unpredictable decisions gives Obama an early chance to place his stamp on the nine-member high court, possibly by naming a minority — a second black or the court’s first Hispanic — or a second woman, as well as to affirm, if not strengthen, its support for abortion rights. As a candidate for the White House, he said he would not use a litmus test for nominees, but observed that he thought the landmark 1973 Roe v. Wade ruling that gave women the right to end their pregnancies was correctly decided.

Souter, 69, was named to the court in 1990 by the first President Bush, a Republican. But on abortion as well as other issues, the New Hampshire native quickly proved himself to be less than the strong conservative the GOP had expected. In 2000, he was one of four dissenting justices on a ruling that declared President George W. Bush the winner of the disputed national election.

Democrats, who control 59 seats in the Senate, will be in a strong position when Obama’s nominee arrives for confirmation proceedings.

Officials disclosed that even before he took office, Obama, a former constitutional law professor, offered guidance to transition aides assigned to the judicial selection process — and personally offered names of people whom he would seriously consider for the high court.

Some of the names that have been circulating outside the White House include recently confirmed Solicitor General Elena Kagan, U.S. Appeals Court Judges Sonia Sotomayor, Kim McLane Wardlaw, Sandra Lea Lynch and Diane Pamela Wood, and Leah Ward Sears, chief justice of the Georgia Supreme Court.

Massachusetts Gov. Deval Patrick, Harvard Law School Professor Cass Sunstein and U.S. District Judge Ruben Castillo of Chicago have also been mentioned.

While Obama ticked off many criteria, spokesman Robert Gibbs emphasized only one in a later briefing — a broad background in life outside campus classrooms and judges’ chambers.

Sen. Patrick Leahy of Vermont, who will preside over confirmation hearings as chairman of the Judiciary Committee, said he hoped Obama would consult with lawmakers in both parties, then issued something of a gentle challenge to Republicans.