Secrecy rules for Supreme Court nominees: 'I felt like a spy'

Sources: White House vetting Jane Kelly for Supreme Court
Sources: White House vetting Jane Kelly for Supreme Court

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Sources: White House vetting Jane Kelly for Supreme Court 01:47

Story highlights

  • As Obama delves into the backgrounds and records of potential nominees this time around, confidentiality is again a top priority for the famously leak-averse President
  • Sources have told CNN that a slate of federal judges are being vetted by the FBI

Washington (CNN)When Sonia Sotomayor first learned that President Barack Obama was nominating her to the Supreme Court, the White House made an unusual request: instead of flying from New York for the formal ceremony -- and risk being spotted at the airport by journalists or savvy passengers -- the President's aides demanded she drive to Washington instead.

The middle-of-the-night trip in torrential rain ended with Sotomayor and her assistant hopelessly lost in the darkened Virginia suburbs. But it did preserve the secrecy that presidents dating back decades have insisted on during the high court nomination process.
    Confidentiality is again a top priority as the famously leak-averse Obama delves into the backgrounds and records of potential nominees. Little is known officially about who is on the so-called shortlist, or whether one even exists. The only visual clue to Obama's process: a thick black binder, spotted under the President's arm as he returned home to his residence two weekends ago.
    Sources have told CNN that a slate of federal judges is being vetted by the FBI, including Sri Srinivasan, Merrick Garland and Jane Kelly. But no potential nominees have yet been spotted coming and going from the White House, and they likely never will. To evade the press, Obama will use a secret process that has been used for years and has become an extension of the Supreme Court's own opaque world.
    "He'll be working with a group of people who he's already been familiarized with," said David Axelrod, a CNN contributor and Obama's former senior adviser. "He'll probably call them all in for discussions, which you won't see. They'll use the back door and not the front door. And then he'll make a decision rather quickly."
    A person familiar with the movements of potential nominees said the candidates are usually collected in a car dispatched by the White House Transportation Agency, a military unit, and dropped at a lightly trafficked entrance to the East or West Wing. Once inside, candidates are relegated to a cordoned-off room as they await a meeting with the president.
    Samuel Alito, who was nominated in 2005 to replace retiring Justice Sandra Day O'Connor, underwent several pre-interviews with aides to President George W. Bush before being brought before the commander in chief early on a Saturday morning.
    "I checked into a hotel downtown. They said I was to go to a particular corner, at a particular time in the morning, and wait for a Chrysler 300 to pull up and flash its headlights a couple of times and I was to get in the car," he recalled in an interview with Weekly Standard editor Bill Kristol last year. "I felt like a spy."
    Alito met Bush in the first family's private residence on the second floor of the White House -- an inner enclave that even staffers rarely see.
    When President George H.W. Bush was considering Clarence Thomas for a post on the high court, a black sedan with heavily tinted windows met the candidate in an out-of-the-way parking lot in suburban Virginia and shuttled him to a padded, soundproof room at the Department of Justice. Later, as Bush's shortlist was being winnowed down, top administration officials arranged for Thomas to meet the president at the White House -- but only after orchestrating an anonymous entry through a tunnel from the Treasury Department next door.
    The White House press corps, stationed in the briefing room and on the North Lawn, never caught wind of the meeting, convened in a windowless inner room of the White House. Reporters were similarly clueless when administration aides ferried Thomas on a government airplane from Joint Base Andrews to Bush's compound in Kennebunkport, Maine, where he was unveiled as the president's nominee.
    "He seemed to revel in outwitting the reporters," Thomas wrote in his 2007 memoir, "My Grandfather's Son."
    Obama, according to aides during his first selection process, was similarly amused by skirting the speculative press.
    "The President does take some heart in knowing that in all of the lists that have been seen and produced, there hasn't yet been one produced with the totality of names ... being considered," then-Press Secretary Robert Gibbs told reporters in 2009.
    In President Bill Clinton's White House, the lock-down on communication over the Supreme Court pick ended up boxing out the nominee himself. Stephen Breyer recalled waiting in his office on the day Clinton was expected to name a replacement for Justice Harry Blackmun, only to see the news reported on television.
    "(CNN anchor) Bernard Shaw -- we saw him on television -- said, 'They're going to nominate Judge Breyer.' Then I heard nothing for three hours," Breyer said during an 2008 interview with the Miller Center at the University of Virginia. "They're saying this on television, but no one's told me."
    As Obama contemplates his third Supreme Court nomination, he is similarly adamant about maintaining privacy. Aides have refused to disclose which names the legal team has researched or when specifically Obama hopes to announce his pick.
    Even top administration officials are left guessing. On a conference call with Asian-American leaders last week, Tina Tchen, the first lady's chief of staff and a close adviser to the President, said "there's only one person who knows what's in the decision-making process, and that is the President," according to a person who was listening to the briefing.
    Josh Earnest, the White House press secretary, acknowledged the information void would produce angst among those tasked with cracking the story.
    "I think we are sort of reaching the height of the most frustrating part of this process for those of you who are trying to cover it," he said.