Before the court comes the courting.
President Barack Obama, zeroing on his first nomination to the Supreme Court, is reaching out Wednesday to senators he knows can set the tone and pace of the upcoming confirmation.
The president will meet at the White House with Senate Democratic leader Harry Reid, Senate Republican leader Mitch McConnell, Judiciary Committee Chairman Patrick Leahy and Sen. Jeff Sessions, the top Republican on the Judiciary Committee.
Already, Obama has made clear he wants a nominee who not only is schooled in the law but passionate about how it affects people’s lives, a scholar willing to decide a case from the heart when the constitutional answer is elusive. In many ways, he wants someone like himself.
Obama also wants his nominee to get through Senate vetting, hearings and voting before Congress breaks in August so the matter isn’t left exposed for the last month of summer. The timetable would ensure the new justice is seated for the next court term in October.
Justice David Souter is retiring when the current court session ends this summer. Obama is likely to announce his nominee to replace Souter this month, but not this week.
White House press secretary Robert Gibbs said he couldn’t say whether Obama would be "washing names" through the senators at Wednesday’s meeting but that it would focus heavily on process. Obama is intent on trying to keep the names of those he is considering private.
His thinking is largely driven by his own life: community organizer in Chicago, president of the Harvard Law Review, instructor of constitutional law, member of the Senate during two Supreme Court confirmations. He is not just setting the tone; he is engaged in the search.
"I don’t think you’ll see, in picking a Supreme Court nominee, that the president is going to look for a recommendation and agree or disagree with that," Gibbs said. "You have a president who understands and has studied many of these issues — even taught them. This is a process that will be decided ultimately by him."
What’s known is that Obama is likely to choose a female candidate for a nine-member court that has just one woman, Ruth Bader Ginsburg. He is expected to choose a relatively young person who could serve for decades and may opt for someone from outside the traditional path of the federal appellate system.
One other characteristic is critical.
"I view that quality of empathy, of understanding and identifying with people’s hopes and struggles, as an essential ingredient for arriving at just decisions and outcomes," Obama said recently.
Outside groups and even the Senate’s newest Democrat, Arlen Specter of Pennsylvania, have urged Obama to choose a female, arguing that women are underrepresented on the court. Other organizations have pressed for the president to select a Hispanic.
The White House, determined to cast Obama’s decision as his own, has signaled to advocacy groups to keep their campaigns to themselves. Still, some of those groups will get an audience of their own Wednesday at the White House with senior staff to make their cases.
"I don’t think that the lobbying of interest groups will help," Gibbs said. "I think in many ways lobbying can, and will, be counterproductive."
A host of factors give Obama the chance to do what every president desires — pick someone he really wants.
He is popular president still in the infancy of his term. He has a strong Democratic majority in the Senate. He had names of potential nominees in mind before he took office, and Souter gave him plenty of time to get someone confirmed before the next court begins its term in October.
And Obama may be in position to make at least one more nomination this term due to retirement. Ginsburg is 76 and recently underwent cancer surgery. Justice John Paul Stevens, 89, is the oldest member of the court.
That gives him some political leeway should he disappoint some of his left-leaning constituencies by not choosing someone from a particular demographic group this time around.
"This decision will clearly show whether this is the Barack Obama of the campaign trail, who’s a modern trans-partisan pragmatist, or whether he is following the litmus-test standard of a whole host of radical judicial groups," said Gary Marx, executive director of the conservative Judicial Confirmation Network.
Obama has set out his fundamental criteria: someone who is dedicated to the rule of law, honors constitutional traditions and respects what he calls the appropriate limits of a justice’s role. He said he wants a person with an excellent record and a sharp, independent mind.
Yet the X factor might be his other criterion — a sense of court decisions in the context of daily lives.
It is why Obama said he voted against Chief Justice John Roberts in 2005 despite acknowledging that Roberts was plenty qualified to sit on the high court. Obama said then that adherence to precedent and rules of interpretation only go so far.
In the toughest cases, Obama said, "the critical ingredient is supplied by what is in the judge’s heart."