WASHINGTON — On the verge of choosing his first Supreme Court nominee, President Barack Obama has already provided a profile of the person he is likely to pick: an intellectual heavyweight with a "common touch," someone whose brand of justice means seeing life from the perspective of the powerless.
Obama is expected to announce his nominee this week, as early as Tuesday. "You have to have not only the intellect to be able to effectively apply the law to cases before you," Obama said in an interview carried Saturday on C-SPAN television. "But you have to be able to stand in somebody else's shoes and see through their eyes and get a sense of how the law might work or not work in practical day-to-day living."
That quality — Obama calls it empathy — is a huge factor in picking a successor to retiring Justice David Souter. Among the others Obama is weighing: judicial philosophy, intellectual sway, gender, ethnicity, age and the politics of Senate confirmation.
He is expected to choose a woman, and perhaps someone who is Hispanic, but insists he will not be "weighed down" by demographics.
Ultimately, it may come down to an intangible — how well the nominee resonates with Obama. A president's tenure will last at most eight years, but his choice of a Supreme Court nominee could affect the course of the nation for a generation, and his personal legacy for even longer.
The six people known to be under consideration by Obama are U.S. Appeals Court Judges Sonia Sotomayor and Diane Wood, Solicitor General Elena Kagan, Michigan Gov. Jennifer Granholm, Homeland Security Secretary Janet Napolitano and California Supreme Court Justice Carlos Moreno.
He consulted senators on the Judiciary Committee. His aides gave an audience to interest groups, but warned them that Obama did not want to be lobbied. Obama is conferring with advisers but is heavily involved in his own review as a lawyer who loves constitutional law.
"He makes the decision himself, but I think he welcomes arguments and counterarguments from other people," said David Strauss, a professor at the University of Chicago's law school who knows Obama from when they both taught there. "He wants to hear, 'What are the problems with going this route?' "