President Barack Obama, treading carefully in the explosive arena of abortion and the Supreme Court, said Wednesday he will choose a nominee who pays heed to the rights of women and the privacy of their bodies. Yet he said he won't enforce any abortion rights "litmus tests."
Obama said it is "very important to me" that his court choice take women's rights into account in interpreting the Constitution, his most expansive comments yet about how a woman's right to choose will factor into his decision.
He plans to choose someone to succeed Justice John Paul Stevens within "the next couple weeks," he told CNBC.
Obama accelerated his political outreach and his conversations with candidates, positioning himself for one of the most consequential decisions of his presidency. He invited Senate leaders — Republicans as well as Democrats — to discuss the issue at the White House and commented briefly to reporters before their private meeting.
His rejection of the idea of "litmus tests" was standard presidential language, keeping him from being boxed in and protecting his eventual nominee from charges of bringing preconceived decisions to the bench.
Obama's pick is not expected to change the ideological balance on the court, though Stevens, the leader of the court's liberals, has played a major role in the court's upholding of abortion rights. Stevens, who turned 90 on Tuesday, is retiring this summer.
Whoever Obama picks has the potential to affect the lives and rights of Americans for a generation or more.
The president is considering about 10 people, including a newly confirmed name, federal appeals court Judge Ann Williams of Chicago.
Among the others are appeals court judges Diane Wood, Merrick Garland and Sidney Thomas, former Georgia Chief Justice Leah Ward Sears, Solicitor General Elena Kagan, Michigan Gov. Jennifer Granholm, Homeland Security Secretary Janet Napolitano and Harvard Law School Dean Martha Minow.
When asked if he could nominate someone who did not support a woman's right to choose, Obama said: "I am somebody who believes that women should have the ability to make often very difficult decisions about their own bodies and issues of reproduction."
He said he would not judge candidates on a single-issue abortion test.
"But I will say that I want somebody who is going to be interpreting our Constitution in a way that takes into account individual rights, and that includes women's rights," Obama said. "And that's going to be something that's very important to me, because I think part of what our core constitutional values promote is the notion that individuals are protected in their privacy and their bodily integrity. And women are not exempt from that."
Such a detailed answer raised the question of whether Obama had, in fact, spelled out a fundamental test over abortion. The White House rejected that.
"I think a litmus test is when you say, will you ask a direct question about — do you believe this? Do you believe that?" White House press secretary Robert Gibbs said. "I think the president will ask any nominee discuss how they view the Constitution and the legal principles enshrined in it."
The Supreme Court declared in 1973 through its Roe v. Wade decision that a woman has a constitutional right to an abortion, and close questioning on the issue has been a feature of Senate confirmation hearings for some time. Federal courts have battled with the ramifications of the landmark decision, although the core ruling has gone untouched.
Obama's language largely meshed with what he said during the presidential campaign. In a Democratic primary debate in November 2007, he was asked whether he would insist that a Supreme Court nominee support abortion rights. He said then: "I would not appoint somebody who doesn't believe in the right to privacy."
Meanwhile, Obama sought a cooperative tone with his Republican critics even as the White House braces for a confirmation fight.
In the Oval Office, Obama hosted Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid of Nevada, Minority Leader Mitch McConnell of Kentucky, Judiciary Committee Chairman Patrick Leahy of Vermont and Jeff Sessions of Alabama, the ranking Republican on the committee. He later telephoned nine more senators on that panel.
Obama praised senators of both parties for working together on a "smooth, civil, thoughtful nomination process and confirmation process" last year for Sonia Sotomayor and said he hoped for the same this time. Sotomayor replaced David Souter on the court despite most Republicans' voting against her.
McConnell and Sessions, the two Republicans who met with Obama, promised to give Obama's nominee fair treatment.
Yet in a joint statement, they sternly warned against any nominee who would "enter the courtroom with preconceived outcomes in mind, or work to arrive at the preferred result of any president or political party. A Supreme Court justice must not be a rubber stamp or policy arm for any administration."
No names of potential nominees were discussed in the White House meeting, said Reid, the Senate's top Democrat.
He said he told Obama the nominee need not be another federal judge, but possibly "someone who's an academic, someone who's held public office, someone who's an outstanding lawyer."
Obama is openly considering people outside the judiciary.
For his part, Leahy was sharply critical of the current Supreme Court, led by Chief Justice John Roberts, a nominee of former President George W. Bush.
"We have right now a very, very activist, conservative activist, Supreme Court," Leahy said, citing recent decisions. "I think this does not reflect the American people but reflects more of a partisan agenda. I would hope that the president's nominee can get us back away from that."
Obama has begun having conversations with his candidates for the court, although no formal interviews yet.