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Trump Taps Brett Kavanaugh As His 2nd Supreme Court Pick

Supreme Court nominee Brett Kavanaugh, his wife, Ashley Estes Kavanaugh, and their  daughters stand by President Trump after the president announced Kavanaugh's nomination on Monday.
Mandel Ngan
AFP/Getty Images
Supreme Court nominee Brett Kavanaugh, his wife, Ashley Estes Kavanaugh, and their daughters stand by President Trump after the president announced Kavanaugh's nomination on Monday.

Updated at 9:28 p.m. ET

President Trump has chosen Brett Kavanaugh to fill the Supreme Court vacancy left by retiring Justice Anthony Kennedy. If confirmed, Trump's choice would solidify the high court's conservative majority and continue the president's push to shift the federal bench to the right.

Trump announced his choice with a prime-time address from the White House East Room.

"Throughout legal circles, he is considered a judge's judge, a true thought leader among his peers," Trump said of Kavanaugh. "He is a brilliant jurist with a clear and effective writing style, universally regarded as one of the finest and sharpest legal minds of our time. And just like Justice Gorsuch, he excelled as a clerk for Justice Kennedy."

Since 2006, Kavanaugh has served on the U.S. Court of Appeals for the District of Columbia Circuit, often called the nation's second-most-powerful court. He was appointed to that post by President George W. Bush, after serving as Bush's White House staff secretary.

Kavanaugh graduated from Yale Law School and clerked for Kennedy in the mid-1990s. Kavanaugh later worked with independent counsel Kenneth Starr during the investigation of President Bill Clinton.

At 53, Kavanaugh is relatively young. The president has said he wants a nominee who could serve on the high court for decades. He is a connected Washington insider with roots in politics and has written more than 300 opinions in the 12 years he has been on the D.C. Circuit.

Some conservatives questioned Kavanaugh's bona fides prior to his being tapped for the court, and he is controversial with Democrats because of his role in the Starr investigation of Clinton.

Some conservatives lobbied against him, worrying that his upbringing in the suburbs of D.C. could mean he will be the kind of justice who has disappointed conservatives before. They believe Kavanaugh is not sufficiently conservative and disagree with portions of opinions he has written relating to abortion and the Affordable Care Act, also known as Obamacare.

Kavanaugh, in brief remarks at the White House, underscored his conservative credentials.

"My judicial philosophy is straightforward," he said. "A judge must be independent and must interpret the law, not make the law. A judge must interpret statutes as written and a judge must interpret the Constitution as written, informed by history and tradition and precedent."

As promised, Trump made his pick from a list of more than two dozen potential nominees drawn up with help from conservative legal activists at The Federalist Society and The Heritage Foundation.

Trump published a similar list during the 2016 campaign, and it was widely credited with helping him win the votes of social conservatives who otherwise might have been skeptical of a thrice-married billionaire from New York.

"Not being a politician, I think people wanted to hear what some of my choices may be, and it was pretty effective," Trump said of the list, on the day Kennedy's retirement was announced.

With a short list of candidates already in hand, Trump has moved quickly to select his nominee, just 12 days after Kennedy announced his retirement. Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell, R-Ky., has promised to push for confirmation with similar speed.

"I think you want to go as quickly as possible," Trump said.

Kavanaugh will begin making the rounds on Capitol Hill on Tuesday, accompanied by former Sen. Jon Kyl, R-Ariz., a longtime member of the Judiciary Committee.

Republicans are eager to have a new justice in place when the Supreme Court begins its new term in October. And they certainly want Trump's choice confirmed before the November election, when Democrats have a long-shot chance of retaking the Senate majority.

"This incredibly qualified nominee deserves a swift confirmation and robust, bipartisan support," Trump said.

The president has already begun using the high court vacancy as a rallying cry as he campaigns for Republicans across the country.

"Justice Kennedy's retirement makes the issue of Senate control one of the vital issues of our time," he told an audience in Fargo, N.D., last month. "The most important thing we can do."

Republicans changed the Senate's rules last year to allow them to confirm a Supreme Court justice with a simple majority vote.

The president has also been wooing red-state Democrats as a kind of insurance policy. One night after Kennedy announced his retirement, Trump met with Democratic Sens. Joe Manchin of West Virginia, Joe Donnelly of Indiana and Heidi Heitkamp of North Dakota. All three voted in favor of Neil Gorsuch, Trump's first Supreme Court nominee. And all three are running for re-election in November in states Trump won.

Trump also met with Republican Sens. Susan Collins of Maine and Lisa Murkowski of Alaska, who have shown concern in the past about preserving access to abortion rights.

Kennedy had voted to preserve the core principles of the high court's 1973 ruling in Roe v. Wade.Although Trump said he would not ask judicial candidates about their views on Roe directly, advocates on both sides of the abortion debate believe that ruling could be vulnerable once Kennedy's successor is seated.

That is one reason many Democrats are demanding an all-out battle to block Trump's nominee. But with only 49 votes in the Senate, Democrats have few tools to work with.

By contrast, Senate Republicans were in the majority in 2016, when McConnell and his GOP colleagues blocked President Barack Obama's Supreme Court nominee, Judge Merrick Garland, for more than nine months, following the death of Justice Antonin Scalia.

By keeping Scalia's seat open, McConnell gave Trump a head start in putting his own stamp on the high court, and the president acknowledged as much when Gorsuch was sworn in last year.

"I especially want to express our gratitude to Mitch McConnell for all that he did to make this achievement possible," Trump said.

McConnell and Trump were rewarded this year with a string of 5-4 decisions in which Gorsuch cast votes favorable to the president and the GOP.

Senate Republicans' stonewalling strategy extended to lower courts as well.

"Just as they held the Merrick Garland seat open on the Supreme Court, they also held open an awful lot of vacancies on the district courts and the courts of appeal," said Russell Wheeler, who tracks judicial nominations at the Brookings Institution.

As a result, Trump found more than twice as many judicial vacancies waiting for him when he entered the White House as Obama did. And the president moved swiftly to fill those openings with young, conservative judges. So far, Trump has installed more than 20 appeals court judges and more than 16 trial court judges on the federal bench. Dozens of additional nominations are pending — a list that will soon include Trump's second nominee for the highest court in the land.

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Scott Horsley is NPR's Chief Economics Correspondent. He reports on ups and downs in the national economy as well as fault lines between booming and busting communities.
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