Hoping to replicate a strategy that has long been seen as key to his appeal among conservative voters, President Donald Trump on Wednesday will announce an updated list of Supreme Court candidates that he’s pledged to choose between if he has future vacancies to fill.
The release is aimed at repeating the strategy that Trump employed during his 2016 campaign, when he released a similar list of could-be judges in a bid to win over conservative and evangelical voters who had doubts about his conservative bonafides.
“The president is very excited to share who he would nominate to the Supreme Court,” White House press secretary Kayleigh McEnany said ahead of the announcement. She said Trump “wants Constitution-abiding judges, he wants textualists who believe the words of a statute actually are what they are, not subject to interpretation.”
The high court is currently divided 5-4 between conservatives and liberals. While there is no current vacancy on the court, Ruth Bader Ginsburg, 87, has been undergoing cancer treatment, and three other members of the court are in their 70s and 80s.
Trump has already remade the federal bench for a generation. And any vacancy in the highest court would give the president the ability to shape its future for decades to come if he is reelected in November.
Trump has stressed that power as he has campaigned, claiming that the winner of the upcoming presidential election “could have anywhere from two to four, to maybe even five” Supreme Court justices to pick, though that would require an extraordinary level of turnover.
Trump released two lists with a total of 21 names of potential Supreme Court nominees during his previous presidential campaign and added another five names in 2017 after becoming president. Trump’s two nominees to the court, Justice Neil Gorsuch and Justice Brett Kavanaugh, were both drawn from Trump’s list.
Even in a race reshaped by the pandemic and the national reckoning over race, Trump’s appointments of Justices Gorsuch and Kavanaugh remain among his crowning achievements and are frequently noted at his rallies.
The cultural battle over Kavanaugh’s confirmation, in particular, remains an electrifying moment for many on the right and one that Trump continues to highlight as he tries to replicate the excitement that fight generated on the right and make the race an us-vs.-them battle over American values and cancel culture.
“Did you ever see anything like that? Justice Kavanaugh. People forget. You know, time goes by, they forget. We don’t forget. I don’t forget,” Trump told a rally crowd last month in New Hampshire. “They’re destroying the livelihoods of innocent people.”
For the president’s allies, the list is seen as a way to excite his base as well as well as remind voters of what’s at stake come November.
“I think it’s very important way for the president to reaffirm his commitment to an issue that many conservatives and Republicans see as a priority,” said Leonard Leo, the longtime executive vice president of the conservative Federalist Society who participated in the Kavanaugh and Gorsuch confirmations. “This a great way to remind people pf the legacy he’s already established for himself in this area.”
Trump’s list is expected to include many federal appeals court judges he previously nominated.
With questions swirling about the health of Justice Ginsburg, and sporadic Beltway rumors about other possible retirements, Trump has leaned hard into the idea of more Supreme Court picks.
“Look, we have a big thing with the court,” Trump said last month in Minnesota. “The next President has a chance to do three, four, could even be five (picks). You will change this country around. It will be irreversible.”
Trump’s rival for the presidency, Joe Biden, has promised to nominate a Black woman to the high court if given the chance. Biden, too, has said he’s working on a list of potential nominees, but the campaign has given no indication that it will release names before the November election. Doing so could risk giving Trump and Republicans a target to put Biden on defense.
“We are putting together a list of a group of African American women who are qualified and have the experience to be in the court. I am not going to release that until we go further down the line of vetting them as well,” Biden said in June.
Any list may also be meaningless, however. Either man’s ability to get any future choice on the court depends on having a majority in the Senate, which confirms nominees. Republicans currently hold 53 seats in the chamber to Democrats’ 45, with two independents who caucus with the Democrats.
The court’s oldest members are Justice Ginsburg and Justice Stephen Breyer, 82, both liberals, and Justice Clarence Thomas, 72, and Justice Samuel Alito, 70, two conservatives. Ginsburg made news this summer when she announced she is being treated for a recurrence of cancer but has no plans to step down.
Regardless of party, presidents tend to look for the same characteristics in potential Supreme Court picks. Stellar legal credentials are a must. All of the current justices attended Harvard or Yale law school, though Ginsburg left Harvard and graduated from Columbia. And they tend to be old enough to have a distinguished legal career but young enough to serve for decades. That generally means nominees are in their late 40s or 50s.
More recently, nominees have also previously clerked for a Supreme Court justice, an early mark of legal smarts. Five of the current justices previously clerked at the Supreme Court.