After Supreme Court pick, expect talk of family, sports or fish
Potential Supreme Court justices and their backers have been making pitches to President Donald Trump all week, and on Monday the President will begin his own selling of the nominee.
Along with the assertion of superb academic and career credentials will likely come a more humanizing personal narrative. For Neil Gorsuch in January 2017, Trump accentuated his “extraordinary resume” and roots in the West: “Judge Gorsuch was born and raised in Colorado and was taught the value of independence, hard work, and public service,” Trump said in the prime-time announcement.
For John Roberts, now chief justice, it was about northern Indiana, where, as President George W. Bush noted in his July 2005 prime-time address, “he captained his football team and worked summers in a steel mill to pay his way through college.”
In 1993, President Bill Clinton emphasized that as a new lawyer Ruth Bader Ginsburg was turned down by law firms because she was a mother with a young child, and that she went on to be for women’s legal rights what “Thurgood Marshall was to the movement for the rights of African-Americans.”
The background of some justices naturally enhances their personal stories, such as the first woman Justice Sandra Day O’Connor in 1981 (raised on the family’s Lazy B Ranch) and first Italian-American Antonin Scalia, of Queens, in 1986. Both were appointed by President Ronald Reagan.
Trump appears to have narrowed his search to a select group of U.S. appeals court judges, including top contenders Brett Kavanaugh of the District of Columbia Circuit, Raymond Kethledge of the Cincinnati-based 6th Circuit and Amy Coney Barrett of the Chicago-based 7th Circuit. Those three, along with Amul Thapar, also in the 6th Circuit, were interviewed by the President on Monday.
As Trump decides on a replacement for retiring Justice Anthony Kennedy, the White House team will naturally be considering what attributes to emphasize in that successor.
Perhaps the most compelling background would be Kentucky-based Thapar, 49, the son of Indian immigrants (he would be the first Asian-American justice), and Amy Coney Barrett, 46, a former Notre Dame law professor and mother of seven. When Scalia testified before the Senate Judiciary Committee, his nine children sat behind him.
White House teams specialize in highlighting the human dimensions along with legal brilliance and if either Kavanaugh or Kethledge is chosen, then their respective life stories would be portrayed as distinctive. Both jurists served as law clerks to Kennedy and were appointed to appeals courts by George W. Bush.
A hint of a possible Kethledge portrait emerged in a recent National Review column by Spencer Abraham, a former U.S. secretary of energy and senator who is also from Michigan. He wrote that Kethledge, 51, “has tracked game through the Michigan wilderness, pulled salmon out of the St. Mary’s River and battled swells in his aluminum fishing boat on Lake Huron.”
Kavanaugh, 53, who graduated from Yale University and law school, is the only Ivy Leaguer on the shortlist at this point, and Trump has made plain he likes to tout elite credentials.
A native of suburban Washington, Kavanaugh attended the same high school as Gorsuch, and, like Roberts, Kavanaugh was captain of a varsity team: basketball, not football.
Kavanaugh, who watched up close the judicial selection process as a top aide to George W. Bush before his 2006 appointment to the District of Columbia Circuit, has spoken widely about a theory of judging that minimizes personality.
Adopting Roberts’ judge-as-umpire metaphor, Kavanaugh’s mantra has been neutrality, civility and humility: “We’re not bigger than the game.”