Justice Anthony Kennedy, a longtime member of the Supreme Court and frequent swing vote, announced last Wednesday that he will retire, giving President Donald Trump the chance to fill his seat.
The opportunity will allow Trump to make a major, lasting mark on the nation’s highest court by putting in place a second justice, after his choice to elevate Neil Gorsuch to the Supreme Court last year following the death of Justice Antonin Scalia in 2016.
Trump, reacting to the news at the White House, said he had spoken with Kennedy earlier Wednesday and asked the outgoing justice about possible contenders to replace him.
“(We) had a very deep discussion. I got his ideas on things,” Trump said in the Oval Office. “I asked him if he had certain people he had great respect for that could potentially take his seat.”
Here are a few names of possible contenders for the vacancy:
Brett Kavanaugh, former Kennedy clerk
Kavanaugh was a late add to Trump’s list of potential nominees, but many believe the 53-year-old judge who sits on the US Court of Appeals for the District of Columbia Circuit might be the favorite.
He was born in Washington, DC, and served in the George W. Bush administration. He also served as a lawyer for Kenneth W. Starr during the investigation concerning President Bill Clinton and Monica Lewinsky.
Kavanaugh has impeccable credentials and an Ivy League schooling. Some believe the reason he was kept off early lists was because Trump might have felt he was a candidate from too far inside the Beltway, closely associated with Bush’s administration having served as staff secretary. He has a long paper trail of opinions and is a strong believer in the power of the executive. He also has expressed concern about whether federal administrative agencies have become too powerful, a worry he shares with White House counsel Don McGahn.
As questions about the future of Roe v. Wade swirl, some point to an abortion-related opinion Kavanaugh wrote that pleased neither side of the debate. He dissented when his court ruled in favor of an undocumented teen seeking an abortion, but some on the right thought his decision didn’t go far enough.
Kavanaugh clerks often go on to clerk for Supreme Court justices.
Amy Coney Barrett, former Notre Dame professor
A former clerk to Scalia, Barrett was Trump’s pick for a seat on the 7th US Circuit Court of Appeals.
Born in 1972, she served as a professor of law at her alma mater, Notre Dame.
During her confirmation hearing, she had a contentious exchange with Senate Judiciary Committee ranking member Sen. Dianne Feinstein, a California Democrat, who asked her about past writings concerning faith and the law. At one point, Feinstein asked Barrett if the “dogma lives loudly in her.” Supporters of Barrett suggested Feinstein was attempting to apply a religious litmus test to the nominee.
Barrett is quoted in a 2013 publication affiliated with Notre Dame as saying she thinks it is “very unlikely at this point” that the court is going to overturn Roe v. Wade.
Three Democrats, Sens. Joe Manchin, Joe Donnelly and Tim Kaine, voted in her favor, as did Republican Sens. Lisa Murkowski and Susan Collins, who are in favor of abortion rights.
Raymond Kethledge, former Kennedy clerk
Kethledge, 51, is a former clerk to Kennedy who currently sits on the 6th Circuit. He served for one year as counsel to Ford Motor Co. and is a native of Michigan.
Kethledge has issued opinions in favor of religious liberty, including one upholding legislative prayer, as well as a Second Amendment opinion that will please those who believe lower courts are ignoring Justice Antonin Scalia’s landmark opinion in District of Columbia v. Heller, which held that the Second Amendment protects an individual’s right to bear arms.
His critics worry about an anti-union opinion he issued in a case brought by public school employees. Kethledge also penned an opinion holding that the government’s collection of business records containing cell-site locational data was not a search under the Fourth Amendment. That case was recently reversed at the Supreme Court in a 5-4 opinion written by Chief Justice John Roberts.
He was a finalist for the seat that eventually went to Neil Gorsuch. Two sources say that the last time around, when he was interviewed by senior staff, he was asked who should be the nominee for Scalia’s seat if it didn’t go to him. He spoke glowingly of Gorsuch.
Amul Thapar, McConnell favorite
Thapar, 49, was handpicked by Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell to serve as the US attorney for the Eastern District of Kentucky. In 2006, he went on to a seat on the US District Court for the Eastern District of Kentucky.
Trump nominated Thapar to the 6th US Circuit Court of Appeals in 2017. He was born in Michigan and served in government as well as private practice. In 2007, Thapar was the first American of South Asian descent to be named to an Article III federal judgeship.
Mike Lee, Utah senator
Although Lee, a Utah Republican, has never served as a judge, judicial conservatives feel confident that he would not surprise them on the Supreme Court. He is close friends with GOP Sen. Ted Cruz of Texas, and Cruz endorsed Trump just after the GOP presidential nominee added Lee to his list of potential court nominees.
Lee did not support Trump, but insiders point to his commitment to his conservative principles and the fact that he clerked for Justice Samuel Alito not once, but twice.
His father, Rex Lee, served as the solicitor general under President Ronald Reagan, and his brother, Thomas, who serves on the Utah Supreme Court, has also been mentioned as a potential nominee.
As news of Kennedy’s retirement came down, Lee talked to a very small group of reporters in a rare hallway interview about how the retirement is “big news” and as a lifelong watcher of the court, he’s very interested in what comes next.
Asked if he’d be interested in the job, Lee noted that he “started watching Supreme Court arguments for fun when I was 10 years old.”
“I would not say no,” Lee said, adding it is the President’s decision to make.
A month before the 2016 election, Lee asked candidate Trump in a Facebook video to “step aside” from the campaign following the release of the “Access Hollywood” audio clip in which Trump can be heard bragging about being able to assault women.
On Facebook, Lee said the country shouldn’t “settle” and “if anyone spoke to my wife or my daughter or my mother or any of my 5 sisters the way Mr. Trump has spoken to women, I wouldn’t hire that person. I wouldn’t hire that person, want to be associated with that person. And I certainly don’t think I’d feel comfortable hiring that person to be the leader of the free world.”
Asked by reporters about Lee on Friday, Trump acknowledged their differences during the campaign, saying “I really didn’t know Mike because originally we were on opposite sides of competition during the campaign. But Mike — but we became friends. He’s a good guy, very talented guy. Very smart. So a lot of things can happen.”
Thomas Hardiman, runner-up for Gorsuch seat
Hardiman, who serves on the 3rd US Circuit Court of Appeals, has a personal story that appeals to the President. The 52-year-old judge was the first in his family to graduate from college, and for a time he drove a cab. Born in Massachusetts, he attended the University of Notre Dame as an undergrad and then went to Georgetown University Law Center. Sources said he was the runner-up for the Gorsuch seat.
His judicial paper trail includes a dissent in a case where the majority upheld a New Jersey law that prohibits handgun possession without a permit. To bolster his opinion, Hardiman cited Scalia’s landmark opinion in DC v. Heller. If Trump has questions about Hardiman’s personality, he can always ask his own sister, who also sat on the 3rd Circuit.
Joan Larsen, former Scalia clerk
Trump nominated Joan Larsen to the 6th US Circuit Court of Appeals last year. Previously, she served on the Michigan Supreme Court.
Larsen is a former clerk to the late Justice Antonin Scalia, and her conservative credentials are trusted by groups such as the Federalist Society and the Heritage Foundation. In an op-ed published in The New York Times after his death, she wrote, “Justice Scalia believed in one simple principle: That law came to the court as an is and not an ought. Statutes, cases and the Constitution were to be read for what they said, not for what the judges wished they would say.”
Not a product of the Ivy league, Larsen attended Northwestern University School of Law, where she graduated first in her class and served in private practice and in the Department of Justice as deputy assistant attorney general. She has not had the chance to develop a broad paper trail, which some believe might mean that she could be held for another potential seat down the line. But Trump has emphasized that he is considering two women to fill the seat.
CNN’s Lauren Fox and Kevin Liptak contributed to this report.