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The Briefing: A look at Trump's Supreme Court candidates

WASHINGTON – And then there were three – three Supreme Court candidates who, to President Trump, stand tall above all the rest if you believe all the talk around here.

And Monday night, if all goes as planned, the president will reveal his choice to the nation, reality-TV style, just like he introduced now-Supreme Court Justice Neil Gorsuch to the national stage a year ago.

Of course, Trump revels in his unpredictability, so there's a chance that his Supreme Court nominee will not be chosen from among the names Barrett, Kavanaugh and Kethledge.

No, that's not a K Street law firm. Those are the last names of the three federal appeals court judges who appear to have an inside track to replace the retiring Justice Anthony M. Kennedy.

In alphabetical order, here's a close look at the three main contenders, along with a brief glance at some other possibilities:

Amy Coney Barrett: If Trump is spoiling for a fight with Democrats over the nomination, or if he really wants to overturn Roe v. Wade, Barrett appears to be his best choice to accomplish both.

Her pros? Barrett is the favorite of conservative Christians. A former Notre Dame law professor who Trump nominated to the Seventh Circuit Court of Appeals last year, Barrett has a scant legal record but a long history as a conservative legal scholar. She's associated with a charismatic Catholic community called "People of Praise," she co-authored a paper suggesting Catholic judges recuse themselves in death penalty cases, and perhaps most importantly, she's defended overturning court precedents.

Her cons? They're largely the same as her pros. Barrett would be a lightning-rod nominee, one who would energize the Democrats not only in her confirmation battle but in the fall election. Plus, Barrett is only 46, meaning Trump may be advised to hold off on nominating her for the high court until and unless he has a stronger Senate Republican majority than the current 51-49 margin.

Brett M. Kavanaugh: Widely seen as the front-runner for Kennedy's seat, Kavanaugh seems to be the Republican Supreme Court nominee from central casting.

His pros? A judge on the U.S. Court of Appeals for the D.C. Circuit – which is to the Supreme Court what AAA baseball is to the major leagues – Kavanaugh seems cut from the cloth of Chief Justice John G. Roberts Jr., following a similar path through the GOP legal hierarchy. A Yale University law school grad, Kavanaugh, 53, clerked for Kennedy, worked for special prosecutor Kenneth Starr's investigation of then-President Bill Clinton and then served as a White House lawyer for President George W. Bush.

Kavanaugh's cons? The last thing that most conservative Republicans want is another John Roberts, who's been known to seek judicial consensus and who went so far as to write the opinion saying the Affordable Care Act is constitutional. Plus there's one other line on Kavanaugh's resume that could be troublesome to Trump: As a young lawyer, he argued that a president could be impeached for lying or misleading the public.

Raymond Kethledge: With conservative Christians backing Barrett and battling the GOP establishment for supporting Kavanaugh, this judge on the Sixth Circuit Court of Appeals could emerge as a compromise candidate.

His pros? Like Barrett – a Notre Dame law school graduate – Kethledge is not part of the East Coast elite that produced Kavanaugh and that President Trump seems to disdain. Kethledge, 51, graduated from the University of Michigan and its law school and has lived in the Wolverine State most of his life. And in his decade as an appeals court judge, he's built a record as a solid mainstream conservative.

His cons? It seems there's only one – but it could be a big one. He's a traditional conservative who doesn't seem to share the philosophy that made the late Justice Antonin Scalia a right-wing hero: a fondness for originalism, the concept that judges should stick to what the Founding Fathers wrote in the Constitution and not try to interpret it in a modern context. In fact, an academic paper earlier this year ranked Kethledge far lower than Kavanaugh among potential high court nominees in a measure of "Scalianess."

Barrett, a latecomer to the race to replace Kennedy, wasn't even included in that academic paper, but several other judges now seen as long-shot high court candidates made the cut. Sen. Mike Lee of Utah rated highest on the Scalianess scale, and Amul Thapar, an appeals court judge from Kentucky, scored the lowest.

Of course, who knows if Trump even cares about "Scalianess," or if he will pull a surprise and nominate someone for the high court who isn't even on the president's list of Supreme Court candidates.

Trump is famous for surprises after all.

Happening today

President Trump has lunch with Vice President Mike Pence and announces his Supreme Court pick at 9 p.m. ... Secretary of State Mike Pompeo meets with Vietnamese officials in Hanoi ... Congress returns from a weeklong recess.

Good reads

The Washington Post details the fears shaking Europe before the NATO summit ... The New York Times give us the latest view from the swamp, where Capitol Hill aides who wrote last year's tax law have decamped to K Street ... Vox explains how the U.S. threatened a trade war with Equador over, of all things, breast-feeding ... The National Review asks if individual federal judges have too much power ... And Reason magazine asks: If civility is passe, where do we end up next?

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