Who’s on Trump’s list of hardliners to join the Supreme Court?
During the 2016 election—while Republicans in Congress were blocking Obama’s attempt to fill an open seat on the Supreme Court—candidate Trump released two lists of potential appointees, from which he eventually picked Justice Neil Gorsuch. In the wake of Justice Kennedy’s earthshattering announcement of his retirement on Wednesday, Trump said that he would be returning to the same set of names to make his next appointment.
“We have to pick a great one. We have to pick one that’s going to be there for 40 years, 45 years,” Trump said at a rally on Wednesday night, offering few further clues to a rapt media.
The chances of Democrats managing to block an appointment are small, as the president’s choice for Supreme Court judge needs only a 51-vote majority from a Republican Senate. Majority Leader Mitch McConnell wasted little time reassuring conservatives that a decision would be made before the Midterms. “We will vote to confirm Justice Kennedy’s successor this fall,” he said on the floor of the Senate.
Considering the overwhelming likelihood of a second Trump Supreme Court justice, the question to ask is: Who’s on the list?
First, let’s make some eliminations. Leonard Leo, who’s taken a leave of absence from his job as vice president of the Federalist Society to help with Trump’s search, says that the choice will be “someone with a demonstrated judicial record.”
If true, that would rule out candidates like Mike Lee, one of the most far-right conservatives in the Senate, who have never served as a judge. His brother Thomas Lee, a Utah Supreme Court judge, is also on the short list. Senator Lee, however, has a strong political backing, including the outspoken support of Senator Ted Cruz. “I think he would be extraordinary,” said Cruz, who himself posed the most significant threat to Trump in the Republican presidential primaries.
The host of remaining options on the list includes judges on state supreme courts, appeals courts, and district courts. Joan Larson, a federal appeals court judge from Michigan, has the shortest tenure as a judge of these contenders, but at only 49 years old would help Trump to fulfill his goal of installing a long-lasting judge on the Court.
Raymond Kethledge, another Michigan judge for the appeals court, is one of only a few judges on the list with time spent on Capital Hill—although it remains to be seen how much stock Trump puts in a judge’s experience in politics. In 2017, Kethledge issued a scathing decision that accused the Obama administration of blocking efforts to expose prejudice in the IRS against conservative nonprofits.
Many of Trump’s candidates for the empty seat were appointed to their current or former positions by President George W. Bush, including Appeals Court Judges Steven Colloton, Brett Kavanaugh, and Raymond Gruender. Colloton and Kavanaugh both spent time working for Ken Starr, the special prosecutor who investigated Bill Clinton during the Whitewater and Monica Lewinsky scandals.
Whoever Trump chooses, it seems almost certain that the swing vote Kennedy brought to the Court will be replaced by a more firmly conservative opinion.