IMage: John Paul Stevens
J. Scott Applewhite  /  AP
Justice John Paul Stevens, 90, announced his retirement in April after almost 35 years on the Supreme Court.
updated 5/5/2010 5:15:01 PM ET 2010-05-05T21:15:01

President Barack Obama will choose a Supreme Court nominee he thinks can provide the "spark and leadership" of retiring Justice John Paul Stevens, the lion of the court's liberals and a respected, persuasive force for decades, one of Obama's chief advisers said Wednesday.

"He senses that responsibility," senior adviser David Axelrod told The Associated Press in an interview on Wednesday.

"You can't replace someone's 34 years on the court, but you are mindful of the fact that he was a leader on the court, and you want someone who can provide that kind of spark and leadership — if not immediately, then over time," Axelrod said. "So he's thinking about that."

Axelrod is deeply involved in Obama' review of the candidates and in shaping how the eventual nominee will be presented to the country. His comments shed additional light into Obama's thinking as the president nears one of the most consequential decisions he will make, the choosing of a Supreme Court nominee.

Stevens, who was nominated by Republican Gerald Ford but became the court's leading liberal, is retiring this summer at the age of 90.

Obama said from the start that he would seek to replace Stevens with someone who offered similar qualities as the departing justice.

If anything, that standard appears even more significant as Obama decides among nominees who, in his view, likely all meet his other criteria of a record of excellence, dedication to the rule of law and an appreciation of how court cases affect daily life.

Stevens leaves a legacy that includes the preservation of abortion rights, protection of consumer rights and limits on the death penalty. His influence grew and waned depending on the times and the court's makeup, but he could be adept at persuading other justices and came to have a giant presence on the court.

Timeline: Stevens' Supreme Court legacyObama is closing in on a decision on whom to nominate. Axelrod, interviewed in his West Wing office, said the president has not yet made up his mind.

The nine-member court is generally viewed as having four conservative members, four liberals and one swing vote. One of the key points Obama is weighing is whether his choice will be someone who can build consensus — again, a quality often assigned to Stevens.

"The court is ultimately a consensual body," Axelrod said. "It takes a majority to act, and even if you're not in the majority, you can influence how the majority opinions are written. You can influence how dissents are approached. Your ability to bring others along ... that's an important quality."

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Obama began with about 10 candidates but appears to be centering on the four candidates known to have had face-to-face interviews with him.

They are Solicitor General Elena Kagan and federal appeals court judges Diane Wood, Merrick Garland and Sidney Thomas.

If the president were to choose a woman, he would put the Supreme Court in position to have three female justices at the same time for the first time. The others are justices Ruth Bader Ginsburg, appointed by Bill Clinton in 1993, and Sonia Sotomayor, whom Obama nominated just last year.

"I don't think he's approaching it as an arithmetic exercise," Axelrod said in response to that consideration. "I think he's going to choose the person who he thinks, at this time in history, will be the best nominee. And I wouldn't look for clues based on gender."

Obama is following the same decision-making process as last year: reading the writings of his nominees, evaluating their relative strengths, doing his own interviews and having his staff conduct others, deciding what kind of person is most needed on the court right now.

By the time he finished up last year, he would have been comfortable nominating more than one of his finalists, White House aides said at the time, but decided the best choice was Sotomayor. There is no single step at the end that makes it all clear, Axelrod said.

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