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Senators urge Bush to select nominee from outside federal judiciary

WASHINGTON—Two senators who will play key roles in helping to fill a vacancy on the Supreme Court urged President Bush on Tuesday to consider replacing retiring Justice Sandra Day O'Connor with a candidate from outside the federal judiciary.

Judiciary Committee Chairman Arlen Specter, R-Pa., and Patrick Leahy of Vermont, the committee's top Democrat, said a nominee plucked from legislative or other nonjudicial circles would add diversity and a different outlook to a court that's dominated by justices who have long worn black judicial robes.

"If they had a little more practical experience and didn't work so much within the footnotes and the semicolons, you might have a little different perspective," Specter said after a breakfast with Bush at the White House. "And I'd like to see that added to the court."

The suggestion comes as official Washington focuses on Attorney General Alberto Gonzales as a potential nominee. That possibility has raised fears among social conservatives, who worry that Gonzales doesn't hold strong anti-abortion views. The speculation prompted Sen. Sam Brownback, R-Kan., an anti-abortion conservative on the Senate Judiciary Committee, to request a meeting with Gonzales. Brownback said he wouldn't grill Gonzales on specific issues, just about his general views of the Constitution and its interpretation.

Most names being circulated publicly as potential nominees already serve on the federal bench, with the notable exception of Gonzales.

The suggestion came during a meeting that the president had requested to consult with senators about filling the court's vacancy.

In addition to Specter and Leahy, the breakfast included Senate Majority Leader Bill Frist, R-Tenn., Senate Minority Leader Harry Reid, D-Nev., Vice President Dick Cheney and White House Chief of Staff Andrew Card. It was the first face-to-face meeting between Bush and a bipartisan group of senators since O'Connor announced her retirement July 1.

Though names of some potential nominees did come up during the discussion, the president "didn't give us any names," Reid said. Democrats who were present suggested that Bush consider three Hispanic-American judges: Sonia Sotomayor of the 2nd U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals, Ed Prado of the 5th Circuit Court of Appeals and U.S. District Judge Ricardo Hinojosa.

Asked later how close he was to naming his selection, Bush said, "Closer than I was yesterday," but emphasized that he intends to "be deliberate" in choosing a nominee.

"I would really like him to name another woman," Laura Bush said in an interview from South Africa, where she's touring, on NBC's "Today" show.

The president seemed surprised when reporters quoted his wife on the topic.

"She did? Well, good. I'm definitely considering—we're definitely considering people from all walks of life, and I can't wait to hear her advice in person when she gets back," Bush said.

Only two of the nine current members of the Supreme Court—O'Connor and Chief Justice William Rehnquist—came from outside the federal judiciary. O'Connor had been a member of the Arizona state senate and a state appellate court judge. Rehnquist was an assistant attorney general in the Justice Department when President Nixon nominated him to the court. (President Reagan nominated him to be chief justice in 1986).

"Certainly in the last two decades the court has been really comprised of former appellate judges," said Carl Tobias, a law professor at the University of Richmond. "There is a good argument, if you look at the data, for moving away from that just to have more diversity of experience, of responsiveness to being an elected official, for example.

"On the other hand, there is a feeling that appellate judging is something that you learn over time. The appeals courts are effectively the courts of last resort. So they really do see, before the Supreme Court, the cases ... that a governor or even a senator might not see so often. There is a whole technique of judging."

Later, Specter raised his proposal during the Republican senators' weekly private lunch. Among those listening was former Sen. Fred Thompson, a Tennessee Republican who plays a chief prosecutor on TV's "Law and Order" series and whom Bush has chosen to help him shepherd his eventual nominee through the Senate.

Asked how senators received the suggestion, Sen. John McCain, R-Ariz., said: "From senators? Great! Especially those who are lawyers."

McCain said he recommended Thompson for nomination in a conversation with Deputy White House Chief of Staff Karl Rove. As McCain spoke to reporters, Thompson left the luncheon.

"There he goes now," McCain said mischievously. "Supreme Court Justice Thompson is leaving!"

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(c) 2005, Knight Ridder/Tribune Information Services.

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