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Obama To Nominate A Candidate To Fill Scalia's Empty Chair


The death of Justice Antonin Scalia leaves a big hole in the Supreme Court and a big opportunity for President Obama. That's because the court has been closely divided, five to four, on major social issues for years. Now the White House has a chance to shift the balance of power with a new Democratic appointee. Well, with us to talk about who that appointee might be is NPR justice correspondent Carrie Johnson. Good morning, Carrie.

CARRIE JOHNSON, BYLINE: Good morning, Mary Louise.

KELLY: Has President Obama said anything specific about who he's looking for?

JOHNSON: No. We know from the White House that they do not intend to name somebody to the High Court while the Senate is in recess. So that buys about a week of time. If history is a guide, Mary Louise, two prior nominees by the president to the Supreme Court, Sonia Sotomayor and Elena Kagan, tell us something. He values diversity, diversity of experience and empathy. He has not, as a general rule named ideological bomb-thrower types to the bench over the last seven years. And it's really unlikely he's going to pick that kind of fight now, at this stage in his presidency.

KELLY: OK. So walk us through some of the names that are being floated.

JOHNSON: OK, with the caveat that the White House is not leaking me the shortlist - although I do know lawyers there have been working around the clock on this issue. A man being mentioned a lot is Sri Srinavasan. He's a 2013 appointee to the Federal Court of Appeals here in Washington, D.C. He was born in India, who's worked with both Democrats and Republicans and on some big cases in the private sector too. There's also Paul Watford. He's an African-American judge currently on the Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals. He's clerked for Judge Alex Kozinski, a very prominent judge, and Ruth Bader Ginsburg, who is not so conservative.

KELLY: Sure.

JOHNSON: And also, two women, Mary Louise - Jackie Nquyen, who was born in Vietnam. Her family fled and lived in a refugee camp for a time. She's now a judge on the Ninth Circuit too. And we know from past history, President Obama loves those kind of stories. Finally, there's Patricia Millett, who's argued a lot of Supreme Court cases. She's the wife of a current or former Navy revervist (ph) - reservist rather. And faith has been important and prominent in her life. In her confirmation process for the lower court bench in D.C., she brought along her pastor.

KELLY: OK, so four names there. Now, the catch is that Republican leaders in the Senate have already said they will not act on any nominee that the president puts forward because they want to leave that choice to the next president. Do you hear, Carrie, whether there's - might be any flexibility among Senator - among Senators if the president were to choose a moderate?

JOHNSON: That's certainly something that Democrats are considering now. And there are a few moderate names out there, Mary Louise. In addition to Sri Srinavasan, whom I mentioned earlier, there is a campaign going for Attorney General Loretta Lynch, who, of course, was just confirmed not that long ago to lead the Justice Department, which I cover. She's an African-American woman, just 56 years old, grew up in the segregated South in North Carolina and has gotten along well with people in the administration and, generally speaking, not had too rough a time on Capitol Hill. There's also the idea that if the president named somebody who's a moderate Republican, that may make some kind of difference - someone like Kannon Shanmugam, who's in his early 40s, a former clerk to Justice Scalia, who now runs the Supreme Court practice at a big law firm here in Washington, D.C. He's very well liked. But it's hard to see any nominee at this point breaking through some of that log-jam in the Senate.

KELLY: OK. So I know the math is always tricky. But, Carrie, to force a nominee through, how many Republicans would the White House have to win over?

JOHNSON: Fourteen, the answer is 14. The president would have to keep in line every single Democrat in the U.S. Senate and attract 14 Republicans. That's because in order to prevent or override any kind of filibuster or procedural maneuver by Republicans, the magic number is 60. It's really hard to see that happening this year.

KELLY: OK. Watch this space. Thanks so much, Carrie.

JOHNSON: You're welcome.

KELLY: That's NPR justice correspondent, Carrie Johnson. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Carrie Johnson is a justice correspondent for the Washington Desk.
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