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As Trump weighs options, Pence meets with court contenders

Vice President Mike Pence has met with some of the contenders for the Supreme Court vacancy created by Justice Anthony Kennedy's retirement, The Associated Press has learned.

The meetings took place in recent days, according to a person familiar with the search process. The person did not specify which candidates Pence met with and spoke on condition of anonymity Wednesday to describe the private search process.

President Trump has spoken with seven potential candidates and is set to announce his decision on Monday.

Mr. Trump has said he'll choose his nominee from a list of 25 candidates vetted by conservative groups. Top contenders include federal appeals judges Brett Kavanaugh, Raymond Kethledge, Amul Thapar and Amy Coney Barrett — all of whom spoke with Mr. Trump on Monday.

Mr. Trump has also spoken with Thomas Hardiman, who has served with Mr. Trump's sister on the 3rd U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals in Philadelphia, according to a person familiar with the conversation who also was not authorized to publicly discuss it.

Another candidate considered a top contender is Joan Larsen, who serves on the federal appeals court in Cincinnati.

The president spoke by phone with Republican Sen. Mike Lee of Utah on Monday. He's the only lawmaker on Mr. Trump's list. Republican Texas Sen. Ted Cruz, a friend and ally of the Utah senator, wrote an op-ed for Fox News on Thursday arguing that Lee should be the pick. 

"Senator Lee was made for this moment. No other candidate has his combination of record, ability, and a sure-fire path to confirmation—and no other candidate would excite conservative voters this November more than someone they know and trust, like Mike Lee. Moreover, Senator Lee safeguards President Trump's Supreme Court legacy for all-time, because there is not a single soul out there who can doubt that a Justice Mike Lee would remain true to the convictions he has fought for his entire life," Cruz wrote. 

Mr. Trump is promising to select a "great" Supreme Court nominee to fill the vacancy of retiring Justice Anthony Kennedy. At a "Salute to Service" dinner in West Virginia, he also defended the work of ICE agents. 

Mr. Trump's choice to replace Kennedy — a swing vote on the nine-member court — has the potential to remake the court for a generation as part of precedent-shattering decisions on abortion, health care, gay marriage and other issues. Recognizing the stakes, many Democrats have lined up in opposition to any Trump pick, and Republican lawmakers and activists are seeking to shape the president's decision.

Sen. Rand Paul, R-Kentucky, has told colleagues he may not vote for Kavanaugh if the judge is nominated, citing Kavanaugh's role during the Bush administration on cases involving executive privilege and the disclosure of documents to Congress, said a person familiar with Paul's conversations who spoke to the AP on condition of anonymity.

Some conservatives have pointed to Kethledge as a potential justice in the mold of Neil Gorsuch, Mr. Trump's first Supreme Court nominee last year. Both Kethledge and Gorsuch once served Kennedy as law clerks, as did Kavanaugh. Kethledge, a Michigan Law graduate, would add academic diversity to a court steeped in the Ivy League.

Since Mr. Trump said his short list includes at least two women, speculation has focused on Barrett, a former law clerk to Justice Antonin Scalia and a longtime Notre Dame Law School professor who serves on the 7th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals. Conservative groups rallied around Barrett after her confirmation hearing last year featured questioning from Democrats over how her Roman Catholic faith would affect her decisions.

On Wednesday, Sen. Susan Collins, a moderate Republican from Maine, reiterated that she could not vote for a nominee with a "demonstrated hostility" to Roe v. Wade, the landmark 1973 Supreme Court decision that established a woman's right to an abortion.

"I think I've made it pretty clear if a nominee has demonstrated hostility to Roe v. Wade and has said that they're not going to abide by that long-standing precedent, that I could not support that nominee," Collins told reporters at a holiday parade in Bangor.

But Collins said she also wouldn't blindly vote to confirm someone she thinks is unworthy in other respects — even if he or she supports Roe v. Wade.