Play Live Radio
Next Up:
0:00 0:00
Available On Air Stations
Donate today and support local reporting that's fair, factual, and fearless.

Who Are The Possible Candidates To Fill Scalia's Seat?

President Obama speaks about the death of Supreme Court Justice Antonin Scalia, from Rancho Mirage, Calif., on Saturday. Obama will be nominating a replacement.
Mandel Ngan
AFP/Getty Images
President Obama speaks about the death of Supreme Court Justice Antonin Scalia, from Rancho Mirage, Calif., on Saturday. Obama will be nominating a replacement.

President Obama says he plans to pick a Supreme Court nominee following the death of Justice Antonin Scalia, setting up a confrontation with Republicans who control the Senate.

Shortly after Scalia's death on Saturday, many Senate Republicans vowed not to confirm any Obama nominee, which would leave the spot open for the next president of the U.S. to put forth a candidate.

But even if the nomination gets stuck in the Senate, Obama's pick could send a strong political message.

So who's on the shortlist? Here are a few possibilities:

Sri Srinivasan: The 48-year-old D.C. Circuit judge is considered a moderate. His unanimous confirmation to the federal appeals court for D.C. in 2013 was the first confirmation to that court in seven yearsthanks to what NPR's Nina Totenberg called "huge bipartisan support in the legal community." Srinivasan, who clerked for former Justice Sandra Day O'Connor, has argued before the Supreme Court two dozen times (including arguments against the Defense of Marriage Act) and served in both the Bush and Obama administrations. During his nomination, senator and current Republican presidential candidate Ted Cruz called him a longtime friend, and Republican Sen. Orrin Hatch called him "terrific." Srinivasan, who was born in India and grew up in Kansas, is the first-ever South Asian circuit court judge.

Paul Watford: Watford, 48, was confirmed to the 9th Circuit in 2012. He clerked for prominent conservative judge Alex Kozinski of the 9th Circuit as well as for liberal Supreme Court Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg. Watford, who is African-American, is also considered a moderate.

David Barron: The 48-year-old 1st Circuit judge was approved in 2014 by a 53-45 vote, after a delay over a controversial memo on drones, as NPR's Carrie Johnson reported. "Barron, a Harvard law professor, headed the Justice Department's Office of Legal Counsel early in President Obama's term," Alan Greenblatt wrote for this blog at the time. "In that capacity, he wrote at least one memo offering the legal rationale for using drone strikes to kill American citizens overseas who were suspected of terrorism." Barron clerked for retired Justice John Paul Stevens.

Patricia Ann Millett: Millett, 52, was confirmed to the D.C. Circuit Court in 2013, after Srinivasan. (The D.C. Circuit Court of Appeals is a good place to look for future Supreme Court justices — John Roberts, Ginsburg, Clarence Thomas and Scalia all sat on that bench, and Elena Kagan was nominated for the post.) "The wife of a Navy reservist, Millett has been an advocate for military families, which is a confirmation-friendly activity," Jeffrey Toobin noted in The New Yorker in 2014.

Jane Louise Kelly: The 8th Circuit judge is in her early 50s and was confirmed unanimously — and quickly — in 2013. She has spent most of her career as a public defender.

Merrick Garland: Garland, 63, is the chief judge of the D.C. Circuit Court of Appeals, and his name was frequently mentioned as a possible Obama nomination when Stevens retired in 2010. He clerked for Supreme Court Justice William Brennan. In 2010, NPR's Ron Elving noted Garland "has served the government under presidents from both parties and is considered a judicial moderate."

Jacqueline Nguyen: Nguyen, in her early 50s, is a judge on the 9th Circuit. Her confirmation in 2009 was unanimous. Nguyen was born in Vietnam, and her family fled to the U.S. when she was 10. Her appellate court nomination announcement from the White House notes that they lived at a refugee camp in California before settling in Los Angeles.

Kamala D. Harris: Unlike the other names so far on this list, Harris isn't an appellate judge: She's a politician and the current attorney general of California. Harris, 51, is the first woman, first African-American and first South Asian to hold her current post. "Her mother was a breast cancer researcher from India; her Jamaican father taught economics at Stanford," NPR's Richard Gonzales reported in 2012. "As a young prosecutor, Harris cut her teeth on cases of homicide, domestic violence and sex slavery. Later, as San Francisco's district attorney, she doubled her predecessor's conviction rate and she talked about being smart on crime."

Kannon Shanmugam: Like Harris, Shanmugam doesn't sit on a bench: He's a partner at the law firm of Williams & Connolly and the head of the firm's Supreme Court and appellate litigation practice. The 44-year-old has argued more than a dozen cases before the Supreme Court. He is a member of the conservative Federalist Society and clerked for conservative judges — including Scalia himself.

Mariano-Florentino Cuéllar: Cuéllar, 43, is a justice on the Supreme Court of California and served in both the Clinton and Obama administrations. He was born in Mexico and grew up in Texas and California. Lawrence Lessig floated Cuéllar's name on Twitter. He would be a more liberal choice.

And if Obama's choice is stuck in limbo, and a Republican wins in November?

The shortlist of candidates will depend largely on which Republican wins. Possibilities include lawyer Paul Clement, D.C. Circuit Judge Brett Kavanaugh, 7th Circuit Judge Diane Sykes, Sen. Mike Lee, 11th Circuit Judge Bill Pryor and Peter Keisler, a co-founder of the Federalist Society, who was nominated to the D.C. Circuit by George W. Bush.

But given the volatility of the 2016 race, well, Supreme Court nominees in 2017 are anyone's guess.

Copyright 2021 NPR. To see more, visit

Corrected: February 17, 2016 at 12:00 AM EST
A previous version of this post misspelled Ruth Bader Ginsburg's last name as Ginsberg.
Camila Flamiano Domonoske covers cars, energy and the future of mobility for NPR's Business Desk.

You make NHPR possible.

NHPR is nonprofit and independent. We rely on readers like you to support the local, national, and international coverage on this website. Your support makes this news available to everyone.

Give today. A monthly donation of $5 makes a real difference.