So, Who’s Next?

Now that John Roberts has sailed through his confirmation hearings, the White House, Congress and ideological activists are shifting focus to a second opening on the Supreme Court — and how President Bush should fill it.

For a number of reasons, several conservatives say they believe the president is adjusting his short list of nominees from one dominated by conservative, white men to one dominated by conservative women and minorities, with a particular emphasis on blacks and federal judges who had been based in New Orleans until Hurricane Katrina.

The next confirmation hearing, if the president moves soon, would coincide with a low point in his public approval.

The war in Iraq already was a factor at the time of Roberts’ nomination in July, but Bush’s approval ratings have dropped further because of Katrina and intense criticism of the federal response.

Katrina disproportionately affected poor, black residents of New Orleans, many of whom lived in low-lying areas, lacked cars and couldn’t or didn’t evacuate early. The administration’s slow initial rescue response has spurred cries of racism from blacks and, polls show, has cost Bush support from moderate and conservative Republican voters.

Roberts, a federal appeals judge who is Harvard-trained and has worked for two past Republican presidents, would replace another white man, the late Chief Justice William Rehnquist, assuming the full Senate votes to confirm Roberts at the end of this month.

But the nominee who will come on his heels would replace one of only two women ever to sit on the nine-member court, and a swing vote at that, the retiring Justice Sandra Day O’Connor.

Even before Roberts’ nomination, first lady Laura Bush said she would like to see another woman on the court.

“I’d think a minority, a female, an African-American female,” Tony Perkins, president of the conservative Family Research Council and a former Louisiana legislator, said on Capitol Hill last week during a break in the Roberts hearings.

“It is a question that is loaded with a lot of political considerations as well as timing. From a political standpoint _ I’m from Louisiana _ the charges that have been made there are inaccurate, that the (hurricane) response is in any way clouded by racism. In the political environment, it would counter those false charges.”

Sen. Lindsey Graham, R-S.C., a member of the Senate Judiciary Committee, said:

“You want your institutions to reflect the body politic of the country. There are plenty of conservative women and African-Americans and Hispanics to choose from, and I would be very pleased if the president reached within that pool of Americans and elevated one of them to the highest court on our watch.”

One justice on the high court is black _ Clarence Thomas, a Republican nominee.

There has not been a Latino justice.

White House policy has been to decline to discuss prospective nominees.

Potential candidates, compiled through interviews with conservative officeholders and representatives of conservative organizations in contact with administration officials, include:

  • Priscilla Owen, a former Texas Supreme Court justice whom Bush named earlier this year as a judge to the 5th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals that was based in New Orleans. Democrats likely would go after her court opinions restricting abortion. Owen is white.
  • Janice Rogers Brown, a former California Supreme Court justice whom Bush named earlier this year to the D.C. Circuit Court of Appeals. She is black and her father had once worked as a sharecropper. Brown is a polarizing figure who has given speeches criticizing government welfare and has made some controversial rulings.
  • Larry Thompson, former deputy attorney general under John Ashcroft, now an executive with PepsiCo Inc. Thompson is black.
  • Karen Williams, a white judge on the 4th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals, based in Richmond, Va.
  • Attorney General Alberto Gonzales, who is Latino and close to the president. Gonzales may not satisfy conservatives who consider him too liberal on abortion and affirmative action. Democrats likely would focus on his involvement in war-on-terror policies.

(Distributed by Scripps Howard News Service,