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Obama Prepares To Nominate New Supreme Court Justice


President Obama is expected to make his nomination to the Supreme Court as early as this week. Senate Republicans have pledged to block the nomination until after the election. So joining us to talk about who, what, why and when is NPR legal affairs correspondent Nina Totenberg. Good morning.

NINA TOTENBERG, BYLINE: Good morning. I think the when is probably this week.

MONTAGNE: All right. Well, let's start with the who, then. And you reported last week that the president had interviewed five people - that basically, the list is down to three. So who are they?

TOTENBERG: They're all appeals court judges, highly respected moderate liberals, all men, two minorities. Judge Merrick Garland is the chief judge of the U.S. Court of Appeals for the District of Columbia, which is said to be the second most important court in the country after the Supreme Court. Also from that court is Judge Sri Srinivasan who, if nominated, would be the first South Asian and the first Hindu appointed to the court. And lastly, Judge Paul Watford who serves on the 9th Circuit Court of Appeals based in California. If nominated, he would be the third African-American named to the court.

MONTAGNE: And can you handicap this a bit - the pros and cons of each? And go ahead - start with who you started with, Merrick Garland.

TOTENBERG: Well, the pro is that he's enormously experienced, really loved on his own court, has a reputation as also formerly a prosecutor. He ran the Oklahoma City bombing investigation. He ran the Unabomber investigation when he was at the Department of Justice. The con is that because he has all that experience, he's 63 years old. And a lot of Democrats would like somebody younger than that who, presumably, would be there longer than that. The next nominee's Sri Srinivasan - much younger, 49, born in India. Again, widely respected, has worked in both Republican and Democratic administrations.

He doesn't have a long Court of Appeals record, but that's not enough to flyspeck very carefully. It's very similar to, actually, Chief Justice John Roberts's record. They both worked in the solicitor general's office arguing on behalf of the government in the Supreme Court. Both had enormous experience there. Both went on the D.C. Court of Appeals for a pretty short time, and there isn't a lot to say - oh, look, that awful thing he did that I hate.

MONTAGNE: Well, then let's get to the third possible nominee, Paul Watford from California.

TOTENBERG: Right. I don't actually know anything, but my sense is that he's the least likely of the three. He's young - also 48, has been on the 9th Circuit since the first Obama administration. There were 34 Republican votes against him. But there were Republican votes for him. If he doesn't make it this time, I guarantee you his name will be in the mix next time.

MONTAGNE: Let's get to, also, the question of the hour - why would any of these potential nominees want to be nominated if the Republicans are saying they will not even vote on it or meet with them?

TOTENBERG: Well, first of all, the Democrats are going to make that more and more difficult for the Republicans. They're hoping to crack that wall. They are hoping to see, for example, Sri Srinivasan, at the door of a Kansas senator who won't to see him. That's - you know, that's (laughter)...

MONTAGNE: Not a great optic.

TOTENBERG: Not a great optic. And all the public opinion polls show that this was a mistake from an optics point of view. On the other hand, if they started to go ahead and have a crack in the wall, there would be more and more force and push for a vote.

However - imagine this - the election is finished, and the Democrats win. No matter what happens, whether the Republicans take control of the Senate or not, would they rather wait to have the Democratic nominee of Hillary Clinton or Bernie Sanders? Or would they rather one of these nominees, who I guarantee you is a more centrist person - or they certainly would think of as a more centrist person?

MONTAGNE: Nina, thanks very much.

TOTENBERG: Thank you.

MONTAGNE: That NPR's Nina Totenberg. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Nina Totenberg is NPR's award-winning legal affairs correspondent. Her reports air regularly on NPR's critically acclaimed newsmagazines All Things Considered, Morning Edition, and Weekend Edition.
Renee Montagne, one of the best-known names in public radio, is a special correspondent and host for NPR News.
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