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White House Initiates Search Process for Blackmun Successor

By Joan Biskupic
The Washington Post

If President Clinton chooses Senate Majority Leader George J. Mitchell, D-Maine, for the Supreme Court, he'll get an experienced vote-dealer, a true liberal and an example of the old-fashioned Democratic way of picking justices.

If Clinton selects U.S. District Judge Jose Cabranes, who has more than 10 times the judicial experience of Mitchell, he'll get nearly the opposite. Cabranes is a 15-year trial judge in Connecticut whose judicial record is moderate enough that the Bush administration briefly considered him for the high court in 1990.

While Cabranes would be the first Hispanic justice, his selection also would follow the recent Republican pattern of elevating lower court judges to the Supreme Court. Democratic presidents in this century were more apt to turn to the world of politics. That may tempt Clinton, whose first choice for a high court replacement last year was New York Gov. Mario M. Cuomo.

Mitchell and Cabranes emerged Thursday as top names on a list of potential successors to Justice Harry A. Blackmun, who announced Wednesday that he will retire at the end of this term. But - as happened last year when front-runners became also-rans - anything goes in the selection process.

Clinton plans to have his first full discussion of the vacancy on Saturday, after he returns to Washington from a two-day midwestern trip to promote health care reform. Some senior officials sought to counter the impression yesterday that the White House had settled on Mitchell. They said some of the president's advisers believe a candidate from outside the Beltway would better fulfill Clinton's pledge to diversity the court and change the way Washington does business.

Numerous people are being considered, including Solicitor General Drew S. Days III, who would be the third black justice; Federal Appeals Court Judge Richard S. Arnold, a longtime Clinton friend from Little Rock; and Federal Appeals Court Judge Stephen G. Breyer of Boston, who was passed over at the last minute for Ruth Bader Ginsburg.

Clinton said he was searching for "someone of genuine stature and a largeness of spirit" to replace Blackmun. As shown by his interest in Mitchell and Cuomo last year, he appears attracted to the possibility of nominating someone from public life.

Mitchell, 60, would bring a different background and style to the court, as well as a jolt of liberalism. He is against the death penalty, for abortion rights and against prayer in public school.

"Mitchell presents a really attractive combination of past government experience," said Stanford University law professor Kathleen Sullivan, noting that he had been a U.S. attorney (1977-79), a federal judge (for eight months) and, since 1980, a U.S. senator. Mitchel was elected Democratic majority leader five years ago.