WASHINGTON— President Donald Trump said Wednesday he intends to announce his nominee for the Supreme Court on Feb. 2, and three federal appeals court judges are said to be the front-runners to fill the lifetime seat held by the late Justice Antonin Scalia, a conservative icon.
The leading contenders, who have met with Trump, are William Pryor, Neil Gorsuch and Thomas Hardiman, according to a person familiar with the process who was not authorized to speak publicly about internal decisions and discussed the search on condition of anonymity. The three, ranging in age from 49 to 54, were on the list of 21 potential high court picks Trump announced during his presidential campaign.
Pryor, 54, is an Alabama-based judge on the 11th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals. Gorsuch, 49, is on the Denver-based 10th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals. Hardiman, 51, is based in Pittsburgh for the 3rd U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals. All were nominated by President George W. Bush for their current posts.
In a tweet Wednesday morning, Trump said he will make his high court pick next Thursday.
Pryor, 54, is an Alabama-based judge on the 11th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals. Gorsuch, 49, is on the Denver-based 10th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals. Hardiman, 51, is based in Pittsburgh for the 3rd U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals. All three were nominated by President George W. Bush for their current posts.
Trump has promised to seek someone in the mold of conservative icon Antonin Scalia, who died nearly a year ago after serving on the Supreme Court for more than 29 years. Senate Republicans prevented President Barack Obama from filling the seat, a political gamble that paid off when Trump was elected.
It's hard to know what might persuade Trump to choose one instead of the others, said John Malcolm, a senior lawyer at the conservative Heritage Foundation. "He's got to feel comfortable with the guy. It's a part of his legacy, a very important part of his legacy," Malcolm said.
Justices often serve for decades after the president has chosen them leaves office. The longest serving justice currently on the bench, Anthony Kennedy, was a Ronald Reagan appointee who joined the court in 1988.
Democrats and liberal interest groups, fuming over the Republican refusal to consider Obama's nomination of Judge Merrick Garland to the court, are ready to fight any Trump nominee who is "outside the mainstream," Senate Democratic leader Chuck Schumer said after a White House meeting about the court vacancy Tuesday.
Conservatives said the contenders all share Scalia's commitment to the text and meaning of the Constitution. "These are not stealth candidates. Their records are there for everyone to see and to understand. Their judicial philosophy is well within the mainstream of American legal thought," said Leonard Leo, a conservative lawyer who has been advising Trump on the filling the vacancy.
Of the three leading candidates, only Pryor faced significant opposition when nominated to the appeals court. Senate Democrats refused to allow a vote on his nomination, leading Bush initially to give Pryor a temporary recess appointment. In 2005, the Senate confirmed him 53-45, after senators reached an agreement to curtail delaying tactics for appellate judgeships.
Gorsuch was approved by a voice vote in 2006. Schumer and Feinstein were among the 95 senators who voted for Hardiman's confirmation in 2007. Hardiman is a colleague of Trump's sister, Judge Maryanne Trump Barry.
Pryor has a reputation as staunch conservative with a taste for academic rigor. He once called the landmark 1973 decision legalizing abortion the "worst abomination in the history of constitutional law." As Alabama attorney general, he also angered some conservatives for urging a judicial discipline panel to remove Alabama Chief Justice Roy Moore from office after he refused to obey a court order take down a Ten Commandments monument from the lobby of the state judicial building.
Some conservatives also have recently criticized Pryor for his vote in 2011 in favor of a transgender woman who sued for sex discrimination.
Gorsuch is the closest on Trump's list to a Washington insider — the son of former EPA administrator Anne Gorsuch, educated in the Ivy League and at Oxford, law clerk to Justice Anthony Kennedy and Bush-era Justice Department official.
His opinions and outside writings, praised for their clear, colloquial style, include a call for courts to second-guess government regulations, defense of religious freedom and skepticism toward law enforcement. He has contended that courts give too much deference to government agencies' interpretations of statutes. He sided with groups that held religious objections to the Obama administration's requirements that employers provide health insurance that includes contraception.
Hardiman has sided with jails seeking to strip-search inmates arrested for even minor offenses and has supported gun rights, dissenting in a 2013 case that upheld a New Jersey law to tighten requirements for carrying a handgun in public. Last year, he joined two 3rd Circuit colleagues in affirming the $1 billion settlement of NFL concussion claims, rejecting complaints that men with depression and mood disorders were left out of the deal. A Massachusetts native, he settled in Pittsburgh, where his wife comes from a family of prominent Democrats.
Associated Press writers Jonathan Lemire, Kim Chandler in Montgomery, Alabama, Maryclaire Dale in Philadelphia and Nicholas Riccardi in Denver contributed to this report.