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New name emerges for Supreme short list

An administration official says President Barack Obama is considering federal appeals court judge Sidney Thomas of Montana for the Supreme Court.
/ Source: The Associated Press

President Barack Obama's candidates for the Supreme Court include a new name, federal appeals court Judge Sidney Thomas of Montana, and at least six others who were contenders when Obama chose his first high court nominee last year, The Associated Press has learned.

Among the others under consideration are former Georgia Chief Justice Leah Ward Sears, federal appeals court judges Diane Wood and Merrick Garland, Solicitor General Elena Kagan, Michigan Gov. Jennifer Granholm and Homeland Security Secretary Janet Napolitano.

The president is seriously reviewing about 10 people as a potential nominee to replace Justice John Paul Stevens, who is retiring this summer.

Seven of those names are now confirmed to the AP by the administration.

A senior administration official said the president's consideration is not just centered on the three people receiving the most public attention: Wood, Kagan and Garland. The official spoke on condition of anonymity because no announcements have been made about the people Obama is considering for the court.

Thomas, 56, of Billings, Mont., serves on the 9th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals, the largest of the nation's appellate courts.

He was nominated to the federal bench in July 1995 by then-President Bill Clinton and confirmed by the Senate in January 1996 with no controversy in a voice vote.

He comes from Western roots — born in Bozeman, Mont., bachelor's degree from Montana State University, law degree from the University of Montana. Thomas worked in private practice in Billings and was an adjunct community college law professor there for years before becoming a federal judge.

The White House on Monday quickly ended speculation about another potential nominee: Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton. Her named had been floated as a possibility by Sen. Orrin Hatch of Utah, but White House press secretary Robert Gibbs said Obama "is going to keep her as his secretary of state."

Obama's list includes three people whom he interviewed as finalists when the court had an opening last year — Wood, Kagan and Napolitano. The president ultimately nominated federal Judge Sonia Sotomayor to replace retiring Justice David Souter. She was later confirmed in a 68-31 vote by the Senate.

With his second nomination in less than a year, Obama is in a far different position.

He has the experience of having gone through a successful search, and a ready-made list of names from that effort. But administration officials say Obama is also intent not to rely on the candidates from last time and that new ideas are in the mix, cautioning about an over-reliance on conventional wisdom.

So far, most of the known candidates under Obama's review are familiar within Washington's political and legal circles. They are:

  • Wood, an appeals court judge in Chicago who has worked at the State Department, the Justice Department and in private practice. Like Obama, she taught at the University of Chicago Law School.
  • Kagan, who stepped down as dean of Harvard Law School to become the nation's first female solicitor general. Like Obama, she has her law degree from Harvard and taught at the University of Chicago Law School.
  • Granholm, the Michigan governor and former federal prosecutor and Michigan attorney general.
  • Napolitano, the homeland security chief who is a former Arizona governor and a former federal prosecutor.
  • Garland, of the federal appeals court in Washington, a former high-ranking Justice Department official.
  • Sears, the first black female to serve as the chief justice of the Georgia Supreme Court, who is now in private practice after a long career on the bench.

As for Thomas, an individual who answered the phone at his chambers in Billings said he was not in town on Monday and a message was not immediately returned.

"He typically is very intellectual without coming off as erudite," said Timothy Bechtold, a Missoula lawyer and chairman of the Montana Bar Association's federal practice section. "His opinions are very well thought out and are meant to be very easy for everyone to understand the legal reasoning behind it."

Randy Bishop, a Billings attorney who went to law school with Thomas, said he told Thomas at the time of his confirmation to the federal appeals court that he was suited to land on the Supreme Court one day.

"He just laughed it off in a modest way," said Bishop, "and said 'I'm glad to get on the 9th Circuit right now.'"