Justice Anthony Kennedy announced his retirement from the U.S. Supreme Court Wednesday, precipitating a cataclysmic election year confirmation battle.
Though the White House has publicly identified as many as 25 possible candidates to succeed Kennedy, the early favorites for the pick are drawn from a small crop of young appeals court judges popular in Washington’s conservative legal circles.
Speaking in the Oval Office shortly after Kennedy’s announcement, Trump confirmed he would draw his selection from a list of possible Supreme Court nominees assembled during the 2016 presidential campaign. Five individuals were added to that list in November 2017.
These early favorites include Judges Brett Kavanaugh of the U.S. Court of Appeals for the D.C. Circuit, Raymond Kethledge of the 6th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals, and Diane Sykes of the 7th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals.
Both Kavanaugh and Kethledge clerked for Kennedy on the high court. Sources close to the president styled both men as front-runners for Trump’s next Supreme Court appointment just days after Justice Neil Gorsuch’s nomination was announced in January 2017.
Kavanaugh, 53, is a graduate of Yale Law School who worked in the George W. Bush White House prior to his appointment to the D.C. Circuit, often considered the Supreme Court’s farm team.
Kethledge, 51, was in private practice before his elevation to the federal bench in 2008. He is a graduate of the University of Michigan Law School. (RELATED: Kennedy Calls It Quits: Swing Justice Hands Trump The Biggest Gift Of His Presidency)
Sykes, 60, has served on the 7th Circuit since 2003. Before she was tapped for federal judicial service, she was a state judge in Wisconsin. Sykes was also seriously considered for the Supreme Court during the Bush presidency.
All three are renown judicial conservatives with substantial ties to the Federalist Society, which advises the president on judicial appointments.
Three recent Trump appointees to the federal circuit courts, Judges Amul Thapar and Joan Larsen of the 6th Circuit, and Amy Coney Barrett of the 7th Circuit are also in serious contention.
Thapar, 49, is a protege of Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell with extensive experience as a federal trial judge. Larsen, 49, served briefly on the Michigan Supreme Court, clerked for the late Justice Antonin Scalia and taught law at the University of Michigan. Barrett, 45, is also a Scalia clerk and was a widely respected academic at the University of Notre Dame Law School when she was nominated for the 7th Circuit in 2017.
Barrett’s national profile increased significantly when Democrats on the Senate Judiciary Committee questioned her about the extent to which her deeply-held religious beliefs might bear on the discharge of her duties. Barrett is a Roman Catholic.
Speaking on the Senate floor Wednesday afternoon, McConnell said the Senate will aim to confirm a new justice before the November elections.
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