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Looking Toward a Replacement for O'Connor

RENEE MONTAGNE, host:

President Bush travels to Denmark today, ahead of the G8 summit of industrialized nations, in Scotland. The G8 meeting is expected to focus on aid to Africa, but the president will also be thinking about his choice to fill the vacancy on the Supreme Court following the retirement of Justice Sandra Day O'Connor. Joining me now is NPR senior correspondent Juan Williams.

Good morning.

JUAN WILLIAMS reporting:

Good morning, Renee.

MONTAGNE: When is the announcement from the White House likely to come on this replacement?

WILLIAMS: Well, the president's already started doing some research. He was at Camp David over the weekend, Renee. Right now, though, the earliest day for an appointment--nomination, I should say--would by July 10th. Harriet Miers, who is the White House counsel, is preparing documents, dossiers, if you will, on several possible nominees that the president will take with him as he travels. The president will be meeting with Senators Frist and Reid and the chairman of the Judiciary Committee, Arlen Specter, on July 11th at the White House, engaging in the practice of advice and consent with the Senate on these matters. So it's--in terms of anticipation, I'd say he'll take a few days from there--from--so it's from mid-to-late July, and it's probably in the end the case that he'll hold off on a formal announcement until late July or early August.

MONTAGNE: And what has the president to say so far about his deliberations?

WILLIAMS: Well, in a telephone interview with USA Today yesterday, the president said he's only beginning to look at a handful of candidates and will take, quote, "the next few weeks to review their records." He added that he then plans to interview the candidates himself. That gives you a sense of the time span we're talking about. The president said he's also upset about attacks on his attorney general, Alberto Gonzales, and added that he feels no pressure from various special interest groups to put anybody on the high court. The attorney general--Gonzales--of course, is a longtime friend of the president. He worked for President Bush when he was the governor of Texas, and later served as the president's White House counsel. He's seen as one of the leading candidates to replace Justice O'Connor, and that has attracted some critics from the conservative right who say that his op--his record on the Texas Supreme Court indicated that he's not sufficiently opposed to abortion rights and affirmative action.

MONTAGNE: And once the president, though, does announce his nominee, the process moves to the Senate Judiciary Committee. How long might those hearings last?

WILLIAMS: Well, Judiciary Committee Chairman Specter, Renee, has pledged to have a new justice on the bench in time for the beginning of the term, the first Monday in October. There will be at least a week of televised hearings, though an intangible will be the FBI report on the nominee and whether anything could show up there that would slow down the process or even lead to additional hearings. So the process cus--could easily take four to even six weeks, which comes close to the first Monday in October.

MONTAGNE: And how likely is it that the Democrats would filibuster the president's nominee if they're not happy with that nomination?

WILLIAMS: Well, the Democrats say they have that right. The filibuster talk, of course, takes us back to the deal worked out in May by 14 senators, half Republican, half Democrats. Republicans say that only under extraordinary circumstances could a filibuster be used, according to the deal, and a candidate's ideology is not an extraordinary circumstance under their reading of the agreement.

Republicans also want to limit the questions on matters of qualifications--to matters of qualifications and, at best, allow really the questions about the law to be settled law, not to allow questions about speculation about how a nominee might decide a case.

For the Democrats, they want to do three things. They want to be involved with consultations with President Bush before the selection of the nominee. They want to allow questions to go beyond qualifications; for example, into questions about the rights individuals have who might be charged with terrorism. And they want to obtain as many documents as possible, as they've done in the John Bolton nomination to be UN ambassador.

MONTAGNE: And just briefly, who are the key players in the Senate?

WILLIAMS: Well, there are lots of them, Renee, but I would say the one that everyone will focus on is Arlen Specter, the chairman of the Judiciary Committee. He's going through chemotherapy right now. He received support last fall from President Bush, and--when he was running for re-election, and he's pledged as--when he was becoming Judiciary Committee chair to oppose any judicial filibuster because he said at one point that he thought anybody who opposed abortion would have a hard time getting confirmed for the Supreme Court. So I think everybody's going to keep their eye on Specter.

MONTAGNE: Juan, thanks very much.

WILLIAMS: You're welcome, Renee.

MONTAGNE: NPR senior correspondent Juan Williams. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.