White House startssearch for new justice

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A small group of senior White House and administration officials has quietly interviewed some of the top candidates for any Supreme Court vacancy, said Republican sources with close ties to the White House.

The senior officials are said to include Attorney General Alberto R. Gonzales, who has been mentioned as a Supreme Court candidate; White House Counsel Harriet Miers, the president’s longtime adviser and former personal attorney; White House Chief of Staff Andrew H. Card Jr.; and senior adviser Karl Rove.

No one in the administration would confirm or deny officially that top candidates had been interviewed. Nobody in Mr. Gonzales’ office would comment, either.

The Chicago Tribune, citing “a senior administration official,” reported Wednesday that the senior officials who interviewed the candidates had “briefed President Bush, but the president has not made a decision, said the official, speaking on condition of anonymity.”

The paper also said the senior officials “are not ranking the contenders or making recommendations to the president because they are ‘serious about being respectful to the chief [justice],’ the official said.”

White House spokesman Scott McClellan said again yesterday that “there’s no vacancy that exists at this point.”

However, the Christian Legal Society has been asked to provide its recommendations for a replacement for Chief Justice William H. Rehnquist, 80, who has thyroid cancer. The group complied.

The spokesman acknowledged yesterday that the White House has “made preparations to be ready in case someone does leave the Supreme Court.” The court’s summer session ends Thursday, and there is rampant speculation that Chief Justice Rehnquist will announce as early as Monday that he is stepping down.

In what amounts to the opening salvo of what many expect will be a contentious battle, top Democrats on Capitol Hill yesterday urged Mr. Bush to consult with them on any nominee to help avoid the kind of partisan wrangling that engulfed his lower-court picks.

“The way to avoid the divisiveness and discord that occurred over past judicial nominations is through consensus and cooperation in the selection of future candidates,” 43 of the Senate’s 44 Democrats and its lone independent said in a letter to the White House.

Sen. Robert C. Byrd of West Virginia did not sign, but he intends to send a similar letter himself.

Mr. McClellan said the president will be “more than glad to hear the opinions of members of Congress” when a vacancy is created on the high court.

A Supreme Court vacancy is mere speculation. Although Chief Justice Rehnquist missed nearly five months of oral arguments after he announced in October that he has thyroid cancer, court observers have begun suggesting that he could stay on the bench.

If the chief justice steps down, the top candidates include:

• Samuel Alito, 55, of the Philadelphia-based 3rd U.S. Circuit Court, dubbed “Scalito” because of conservative views similar to those of Justice Antonin Scalia.

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