— ELENA KAGAN, U.S. Solicitor General
Kagan is considered by many to be the front-runner and who's also drawing the most opposition from the left. Pros of a Kagan pick: She's viewed as having an easy road to confirmation (seven Republican senators voted for her confirmation as solicitor general: Coburn, Collins, Gregg, Hatch, Kyl, Lugar, Snowe). She won praise from both liberals and conservatives during her tenure as dean of Harvard Law. She knows the president pretty well (while at the University of Chicago, she tried to recruit Obama, then a part-time lecturer in constitutional law, to a full-time job in academia). A woman, she would be the court's third female, which would be a record. And at 49, she's one of the younger Supreme Court possibilities for Obama.
Pros and cons: Cons of a Kagan pick: Some liberals think that if she's nominated, Kagan would move the Supreme Court to the right (compared with Stevens). They argue that she -- a la Harriet Miers -- has a tiny paper trail, and so they believe it's inconclusive if she's as liberal as other possible Obama picks. Liberal critics also cite Kagan's past statements that suggest she believes in strong executive-branch powers. Meanwhile, conservatives point to this: While at Harvard, she filed a friend of the court brief opposing the Solomon Amendment, which required universities that receive federal funding to be cooperative with military recruiters. Kagan contended that the military's ban on gays broke the law school's anti-discrimination policy against gays. Once the 3rd Circuit ruled that the amendment was unconstitutional, Kagan instructed Harvard Law's Office of Career Services to stop helping military recruiters. But she reversed course when the Supreme Court overturned the 3rd Circuit's decision. Still, she urged students to protest the recruiters.
DIANE WOOD, Seventh Circuit Court
She wins praise from colleagues and lawyers for her smarts, her preparation, and her "incisive" opinions. A Wood pick would please the left, given that she has served as a liberal counterweight to conservative intellectuals on the 7th Circuit like Richard A. Posner and Frank Easterbrook (the three are friends, however, and they often have lunch together, and Posner even officiated Wood's wedding in '06, according to Bloomberg News). In fact, she has won praise for finding consensus on the court, even with her conservative colleagues. If selected, she would bring educational diversity to the court, becoming the only current SCOTUS justice without an Ivy League degree (she earned her undergraduate and law degrees from the University of Texas at Austin, and you know First Read certainly won't hold that Longhorn education against her). And Obama knows her -- the two taught law together at the University of Chicago, and they were reportedly friendly but not close.
Pros and cons: Conservatives have more ammunition to use against her than they would against Elena Kagan or Merrick Garland, although none of her positions are outside the Democratic mainstream. She has a clear pro-choice record and has praised the late Justice Harry Blackmun, who wrote the majority opinion for Roe v. Wade (and for whom she clerked), for articulating privacy and individual rights. Wood delivered a lecture in 2005 stating her view that the Constitution is a living document that's adaptable to a changing world… On the 7th Circuit, she argued that atheists should be able to challenge mostly-Christian prayers that open the Indiana Legislature. And she ruled that a gay Wisconsin teacher should be able to sue for alleged discrimination. But this could be Wood's biggest shortcoming: At 59, she's one of the older Supreme Court possibilities for Obama (and she will turn 60 on July 4).
MERRICK GARLAND, D.C. Circuit Court
Garland is widely respected across the ideological spectrum. Lawyers, who have argued before him, regard him as "fair" (though left-leaning), "polite," even-tempered, "pleasant," "brilliant," and "painstakingly thorough." It seems his whole life and career have been geared toward the Supreme Court: He's a Phi Beta Kappa Harvard law grad; he clerked on the court for Justice William Brennan; he worked in the Carter, Bush 41, and Clinton administrations; and he oversaw the Tim McVeigh and Unabomber prosecutions. In 1997, Clinton appointed him to the D.C. Circuit, which is seen by many as a stepping-stone to the Supreme Court.
Pros and cons: Conservatives have praised Garland, saying he "may well be the best that conservatives could reasonably hope for from a Democratic president." But despite that bipartisan praise, the left likely wouldn't be as thrilled with a Garland pick as someone they would view as more clearly liberal (like, say, Diane Wood), particularly at a time when Democrats have 59 senators. And he would be replacing a justice considered to be one of the court's leading liberals. Garland is seen as a careful judge, but he also would apparently fit the Obama empathy mold. Said one lawyer, according to the Almanac of the Federal Judiciary: "He is an unusually empathetic man. He is very much aware of the impact of his decisions on real people." One other pro some are arguing for Garland: that he might have the backbone to go toe-to-toe with John Roberts in a way that could even make him a consensus builder with, say, Anthony Kennedy. This issue of the "Roberts Court" is something that is of concern to the president, and some believe he views this court pick as an opportunity to find someone to "check" Roberts.
LEAH WARD SEARS, fmr. GA Supreme Court chief justice
Sears, 54, was the country's first African-American chief justice of a state supreme court. She retired from the court last summer and is now in private practice. Sears is viewed as a liberal, but she's also friendly with Clarence Thomas. In the widely reported case of 17-year-old Genarlow Wilson -- who was convicted of aggravated child molestation for having consensual oral sex with a 15 year-old girl -- Sears wrote the majority opinion, calling the punishment "grossly disproportionate" to the crime and not rising "to the level of culpability of adults who prey on children." Aside from the racial and gender diversity she would bring to the court, she also brings intellectual diversity with degrees from Emory University and Cornell.
Pros and cons: Although her ties with Thomas could allay some conservative criticism, they could possibly hurt her among some liberals. She also has a unique personal story, being born in Germany to a U.S. Army colonel and elementary school teacher. (She remarked as a 4-year-old while touring New York City, "Why do the brown people here live so poorly?" Sears later said, "That was the moment I came to realize there was such a problem with race in this world.") Because of her father's job, she also lived in Northern California, Washington, D.C., and Savannah, GA. She eventually won a full scholarship to Cornell, where she wrote poetry and became involved in the black and women's studies movements. She joined an all-black sorority and didn't join her mother's, because she felt it "was not black enough," according to a profile of her in Notable Black American Women. But one University of North Carolina professor, who analyzed Ward Sears' cases said she "is definitely not a judicial extremist, the kind usually found always dissenting on a court. To label her a liberal or an activist judge is clearly incorrect." Her positions on hot-button issues tend to be nuanced."
JANET NAPOLITANO, Homeland Security Sec., fmr. AZ GOV
In addition to being secretary of Homeland Security and formerly the governor of Arizona, Napolitano served as Arizona's attorney general, worked in private law practice, and clerked for 9th Circuit Judge Mary M. Schroeder. She's also a breast cancer survivor and climbed Mt. Kilimanjaro. Among Napolitano's pros (from the White House's perspective): As a politician, she'd bring a different perspective to the court; in fact, she'd be the first non-judge to be elevated to the court since 1972. She also would bring education diversity (with an undergraduate degree from the University of Santa Clara and a law degree from the University of Virginia). If selected and confirmed, she would be the third woman to currently sit on the court, which would be a record (but she wouldn't be the first Arizona woman on the court; Sandra Day O'Connor has that distinction). She is pro-choice (having vetoed a bill requiring a 24-hour waiting period for abortions as governor). And she's widely respected inside the Obama administration.
Pros and cons: Despite her national security credentials, Napolitano's confirmation hearing would -- again -- bring attention to the Obama administration's response to the failed Christmas Day terrorist plot, especially her widely criticized reaction that the system worked. If she's seated on the court, the president would have to find another Homeland Security secretary, producing another potential confirmation battle. And she angered conservatives when DHS released a report suggesting that right-wing radicals, some seeking to capitalize on the election of the nation's first African-American president, might try to recruit members from the U.S. armed services returning from Iraq and Afghanistan; she later apologized to members of the armed services who might have taken offense.
JENNIFER GRANHOLM, Michigan governor
Granholm is term-limited as governor. She has served in that post since 2003. Before that, she was Michigan's attorney general, worked as a federal prosecutor, and clerked for 6th Circuit Court of Appeals Judge Damon Keith. Among her pros (from the White House's perspective): Like Janet Napolitano, whom we profiled on Friday, Granholm is a politician, and she'd bring a different perspective to the court; in fact, she'd be the first non-judge to be elevated to the court since 1972. She's pro-choice (but while governor to signed a bill giving pregnant women considering abortion the option of viewing ultrasound pictures). And she appears to have good relations with Team Obama (due to her beauty-pageant past, good looks, and considerable debating skills, she played the part of Sarah Palin for Joe Biden's VP debate practice).
Pros and cons: Among her cons: Granholm has never been a judge or a law scholar, so there is no track record about her judicial philosophy. Given that Michigan has the highest unemployment rate in the nation (at 14.1%), critics might seize on that to evaluate her tenure as governor. And she endorsed Hillary Clinton over Barack Obama in the Democratic presidential primary season. Here's one other thing worth knowing about Granholm: If selected and confirmed, she would be the first Supreme Court justice to be born outside of the United States since Felix Frankfurter (who was born in Vienna, Austria)
MARTHA MINOW, Harvard Law School Dean
Minow has served as Harvard Law's dean since 2009, when she replaced Elena Kagan, who's another SCOTUS possibility. Minow, who has been on the Harvard faculty since 1981, is close to Obama and taught him while he was in law school there. In 2009, Obama nominated her to the board of the Legal Services Corporation. The Boston Globe reported: "Minow helped inspire Obama to enter public service instead of seeking his fortune on Wall Street. 'When I was at Harvard Law School I had a teacher who changed my life -- Martha Minow,' he said during the 2008 presidential campaign." Minow's father, Newt, was one of Obama's mentors at the Chicago law firm where Obama worked." Minow clerked for Justice Thurgood Marshall, earned her law degree from Yale, did her undergrad work at Michigan, and got her master's in education at Harvard. (She's also a lecturer at Harvard's Graduate School of Education.)
Pros and cons: Minow is an accomplished academic. The White House could sell her as someone who knows how law affects the daily lives of the American people because of her work on human rights (she founded Co-existence, a U.N. High Commissioner for Refugees Program), as well as her background in family law and her work on challenges students with disabilities face. Among her cons: Minow has never been a judge, so there are no judicial opinions to comb through that would signal what kind of justice she would be. What is out there reveals a pretty liberal track record, which could make for a fight from Republicans. She was one of four law school deans to pen a letter to Congress, advocating for a repeal of the military's "Don't Ask, Don't Tell" policy.