Obama interviews Montana judge for Supreme Court slot

Judge Sidney Thomas (AP)

President Barack Obama has accelerated his search for his next Supreme Court nominee, meeting in the Oval Office with one of the candidates, federal judge Sidney Thomas of Montana, a person familiar with the conversation says.

Obama’s meeting with Thomas on Thursday was his first known formal interview for the upcoming vacancy on the court. He is holding conversations with other candidates, and it is not clear whether he has already had other personal meetings with contenders.

Vice President Joe Biden interviewed Thomas at the White House in a separate meeting Thursday, said the person familiar with the conversations, who spoke on condition of anonymity to discuss Obama’s private deliberations.

The White House had no comment. A call to Thomas’ chambers was not answered.

The personal time Obama devoted to Thomas suggests that the federal judge, well respected within legal circles but hardly a familiar name in Washington, is under a higher level of consideration by the president.

The news of his interview by the president and vice president works to the White House’s advantage in signaling that Obama is giving a hard review to a candidate who comes from outside the Washington Beltway and does not neatly fit into conventional wisdom.

The court is dominated by justices with ties to the Northeast and the Ivy League; Thomas’ career is rooted in the West — he lives in Billings, Mont., and earned his bachelor’s degree from Montana State University and his law degree from the University of Montana.

The 56-year-old judge serves on the 9th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals, the largest of the nation’s appellate courts. He was nominated to that job in July 1995 by President Bill Clinton and confirmed by the Senate with no controversy.

The San Francisco-based appeals court on which he serves has a liberal reputation, but attorneys who know Thomas describe him as independent and a straight-shooter.

Obama is choosing a nominee to replace Justice John Paul Stevens, who is retiring this summer.

Obama’s pick is not expected to upend the court’s balance of power — four on the left, four on the right, one in the middle. Stevens, the retiring justice, is the leader of the court’s liberals.

Thomas’ name has been on Obama’s known list of court contenders for more than two weeks. But the predictably intense speculation about whom Obama will pick has centered on other names — chiefly Solicitor General Elena Kagan and federal appeals court judges Diane Wood and Merrick Garland.

Obama spokesman Robert Gibbs said earlier this week that Obama would be talking to candidates this week, but the White House has declined to characterize those conversations.

The president has been considering about 10 people as potential nominees.

Among the others are federal appeals court judge Ann Williams, former Georgia Chief Justice Leah Ward Sears, Michigan Gov. Jennifer Granholm, Homeland Security Secretary Janet Napolitano and Harvard Law School Dean Martha Minow.

Obama is expected to choose his nominee within a couple of weeks.

He already went through the formal interview process last year with three of the current top contenders — Wood, Kagan and Napolitano — before nominating Sonia Sotomayor in May 2009 to replace Justice David Souter.

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