Federal Courts and Nominations

Wanted: Top Court Justice Who’s Solid Conservative, No Surprises

By Greg Stohr

For his first Supreme Court pick, Donald Trump wants someone with deep conservative credentials to avoid the sort of surprises that have beset past Republican presidents. Someone young enough to ensure a long tenure. And maybe even a state court judge or someone without an Ivy League pedigree.

Trump’s criteria, as shared by a person familiar with his deliberations, point toward William Pryor and Diane Sykes, two federal appeals court judges he mentioned on the campaign trail, along with as many as seven other judges on a list released by the campaign in May. That list is the focus of the president-elect’s deliberations, the person said.

And Trump plans to move quickly, possibly even naming his nominee before he is sworn in on January 20, the person said.

Trump vowed during the campaign to use the late Justice Antonin Scalia, who opposed abortion rights and backed curbs on federal power, as a model for his appointments. Conservatives say they are confident Trump will follow that course, rather than select a less-tested nominee and risk another disappointment.

“One thing we’ve really learned over the last few confirmations is, first of all, it doesn’t pay to try to get the stealth nominee,” said Carrie Severino, chief counsel of the conservative Judicial Crisis Network. “Republican nominees tend to shift dramatically when they get on the court. Going in with a blank slate is not a good move.”

Pryor is a 54-year-old Alabaman who got his law degree from Tulane University and is close with Trump’s choice for attorney general, Senator Jeff Sessions of Alabama. Pryor’s appeals court nomination by President George W. Bush sparked a two-year, highly partisan battle before his confirmation in 2005.

Pryor’s outspoken nature — he once described the landmark Roe v. Wade abortion-rights ruling as the “worst abomination” of constitutional law in U.S. history — makes him perhaps the most contentious possible nominee for Trump.

Sykes, a Milwaukee native who turns 59 this week, is at the upper end of what the person familiar with his deliberations said was the target age range of 53 to 58. A Bush nominee who took her appeals court seat in 2004, she is a graduate of Marquette University Law School.

The criteria provided by the person also fit several other prospective nominees, including Steven Colloton, 53, of Iowa and Raymond Gruender, 53, of St. Louis. Each is a Bush appointee who serves on the federal appeals court based in St. Louis.

Dramatic Story

Gruender offers a dramatic life story. He has described how his mother was physically abused by his father. In 1986, the father, trying to learn about the mother’s whereabouts, confronted their three children and shot two of them, hitting the 23-year-old future judge in the abdomen.

News accounts say the younger Gruender struggled with his father during the encounter, helping the third sibling escape. The father then committed suicide.

A powerful personal story could be a factor in the selection process, the person familiar with the process said.

Someone younger than 53 could get the nomination but only with an especially compelling track record, the person said. Possibilities include federal appeals court judges Thomas Hardiman, 51, from Pittsburgh and Raymond Kethledge, 50, from Ann Arbor, Michigan.

Others on the list are Utah Supreme Court Justice Thomas Lee, who turns 52 next week, Colorado Supreme Court Justice Allison Eid, who turns 52 in January, and Texas Supreme Court Justice Don Willett, 50. Kethledge has the least judicial experience of the group, having taking his seat in 2008.

‘Three or Four’

Trump said on Fox News Dec. 1 that he had narrowed his list of potential candidates to “probably three or four” candidates and that an announcement would come “pretty soon.”

Liberal groups are bracing for a conservative nominee, though they don’t necessarily see everyone on Trump’s list as interchangeable.

“Each would have to be examined as an individual and assessed on their record,” said Elizabeth Wydra, president of the Constitutional Accountability Center. “Some of those names are more traditional conservatives, who may not simply write the more authoritarian Trump a blank check to do as he pleases.”

“Some raise serious concerns about their willingness to enforce our nation’s civil rights laws and constitutional protections for abortion and other rights of equal citizenship,” Wydra said.

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