I had a very nice conversation a little while ago with someone I will dub “the digest.” Based on our conversation, I made a couple of other calls and things really did get interesting. Here now are a few bits to the puzzle over the judicial nominations process. Some is speculation, but most of it is sound.
Alberto Gonzales has never been on the list. The list is generally considered to be Luttig, Roberts, Garza, McConnell, Edith Brown Clements, Edith Jones, Priscilla Owens, and very possibly John Cornyn. “It’ll be a cold day in hell before Gonzales gets it,” says the digest. Others agree completely. In fact, they all say that the only way Gonzales will get it is if he and the President sit down to review the list and the President just says, “Al, I want you.”
The White House has been working under the same assumption for several years — this year will see three retirements, one at the end of term (O’Connor, though they originally though Rehnquist), one at Labor Day (Rehnquist, but they originally thought O’Connor), and one at Christmas recess (most likely Ginsberg, whose health is said to be worse than even Rehnquist’s). It is that third appointment where the digest and all others are unanimous that we will see Gonzales appointed. The President will get two conservatives before Gonzales. Gonzales, being to the right of Ginsberg, will (it is assumed) be palatable at that time.
More interesting is this dynamic first mentioned by the digest and now by others. Senator Frist had a luncheon with members of the Supreme Court and was pulled aside and told that it would be O’Connor retiring and not Rehnquist. Frist chose not to tell the White House, but to instead prepare his office quietly to look like a leader on the issue and redeem himself from what has been widely viewed as a failure of leadership in the filibuster debate. Everyone I spoke to about the incident agreed that the White House did not know until well after Frist knew. The digest says, “We’re looking at a bit of gamesmanship here” between Frist and Fred Thompson. A Senate source speculates that the White House is bringing in Thompson to take the lead and knows going into it that Thompson will overshadow the man who served as Thompson’s junior in the Senate.
What of Cornyn? There are conflicts about him among the sources. The digest speculates, and Senate sources agree, that the White House wants to put Cornyn in a strong leadership position. They had thought that Hutchenson would leave to run for Governor and Cornyn could be the Senior Senator from Texas. With that not playing out, the digest and others believe the White House is putting Cornyn in a strong position for future leadership. Others still think Cornyn could be the nominee. Several have noted that nothing substantive leaked from Cornyn’s private staff meeting last Friday. And, if the White House wants Cornyn to become a leader, why send in Fred Thompson to overshadow Cornyn, unless Thompson will be helping Cornyn.
What to make of all of this? The answer is clear: we have no freaking clue, but the rampant speculation is fun.
One final note. The digest does not think so, but a White House source, a Senate source, and a Supreme Court source all tell me “Rehquist’s retirement is imminent.” We’ll see.