As Trump readies to announce Supreme Court pick, one judge emerges as top candidate

President Donald Trump announced Monday morning that he had settled on a nominee for the vacant seat on the Supreme Court, and one former dark horse candidate has emerged as the judge with quite possibly the inside track to score the nod.

Thomas Hardiman, a 51-year-old judge who sits on the 3rd Circuit US Court of Appeals, has caught the attention of observers to fill the void left by the late Justice Antonin Scalia for a number of reasons.

With Democrats threatening to block Trump’s Supreme Court pick, it’s noteworthy that Hardiman was voted onto the appeals court by a 95-0 tally. Both Senate Minority Leader Chuck Schumer and Dianne Feinstein, ranking member of the Senate Judiciary Committee, voted to approve him.

Hardiman also has the backing of Trump’s closest judicial source — his sister.

Maryanne Trump Barry, a fellow 3rd Circuit judge, holds a high opinion of Hardiman. As an adviser who spoke with the president told Politico, “Maryanne is high on Hardiman.”

And for those who know the conservative judge, there’s another trait that could be attractive to Trump.

“I don’t know that I can think of anybody that seemed as down to earth as he is,” Carter Phillips, a Washington, DC, lawyer who has argued before the Supreme Court more than any other attorney in private practice, told Business Insider.

Phillips said he’s argued a pair of cases in front of Hardiman, been a part of a few panels with the Pittsburgh-based judge, and has had a handful of his former clerks working at Phillips’ law firm, Sidley Austin.

“He’s a really nice person,” Phillips said. “I think he will be what you see is what you get on the bench. I don’t think you’re going to see anything quite like Justice Scalia in that regard, I don’t expect him to be larger than life. … He appears by all means to be a solid conservative.”

Hardiman was nominated by President George W. Bush, at age 37, to serve on the US District Court for the Western District of Pennsylvania, before being nominated to the appeals court just four years later.

A Notre Dame graduate who received his law degree from Georgetown, Hardiman would find himself in lonesome territory on the bench. Each justice seated on the Supreme Court received their law degree from either Harvard or Yale.

As SCOTUSblog noted, he has reflected originalist opinions on Second Amendment cases. On abortion-related issues, Hardiman has not weighed in directly.

Trump promised throughout the campaign he would be filling the vacancy with a judge in the mould of Scalia. Those who spoke with Business Insider about Hardiman said he would likely fall somewhere between Justice Samuel Alito and Chief Justice John Roberts ideologically.

Former US District Judge Robert Cindrich, who hired Hardiman to join his Pittsburgh firm when he first moved to the city, said Hardiman “tries to be humanistic” and “tries to solve problems” in a similar way to Roberts.

“That might be somewhere where he might fit,” Cindrich told Business Insider. “For sure he’s a conservative. In his philosophies, he is a Republican, There’s no question about his conservative bonafides. He was active in the Republican Party when he came to Pittsburgh — very successful at that by the way — so you would have to say he’d be of the conservative mould. How far, it’s very hard for me to say.”

“Whether he is as strict an originalist as Justice Scalia, I can’t say,” he said. “But whether he would pay heed to the word of the Constitution, I know he will. There’s no question.”

But Cindrich, a Democrat, also said he considered Hardiman to be “sufficiently forward thinking and thoughtful.”

Echoing Phillips’ assessment, Cindrich said Hardiman is the consummate “people person.”

“[It’s] one of the reasons he was so successful as a district judge,” Cindrich said, later adding, “He wasn’t there very long, they picked him out as a star, which he was, and got him to [that] circuit court appointment.”

Phillips noted that, though not uncommon to hear, Hardiman’s clerks say they “love him.”

“But they also say he’s open minded, likes to talk through the issues, stays engaged with them after they complete their clerkship,” he said. “From my perspective, he’ll likely be pro-business and he’ll be a lot like Justice Scalia in terms of his overall approach to the cases. I think he’ll probably be good for most of my clients.”

Like Cindrich, Phillips said he expects Hardiman would fall somewhere between Alito and Roberts ideologically, and would be surprised if the judge ended up closer to the more moderate Justice Anthony Kennedy.

“At least based on everything I’ve read on him — which I won’t say is that much, I won’t start reading a judge’s opinions until I have a nominee in hand — everything I’ve heard about him and read about him suggests he will be a solid conservative,” Phillips said. “The same way I knew that Merrick Garland was going to be a solid liberal if his nomination hadn’t stalled.”

Phillips said it was “probably not an unfair comparison” to make that Hardiman would be to the right what Garland, the DC Circuit Court of Appeals judge who was nominated early last year by President Barack Obama for Scalia’s vacancy, was to the left.

Hardiman is joined on the finalists list by 10th Circuit Judge Neil Gorsuch and 11th Circuit Judge Bill Pryor. Trump initially said he would be making the nomination on Thursday, but, after a weekend firestorm surrounding his executive order aimed at temporarily barring travel into the US from seven Muslim-majority countries, the announcement was moved up to Tuesday night.

Carrie Severino, chief counsel of the Judicial Crisis Network, a group that plans to go to bat for Trump’s eventual nominee and spend millions to help get that person confirmed, told Business Insider it seems as if there is a new frontrunner for the vacancy with each passing day.

“You know, yesterday was Gorsuch’s day, today is Hardiman. Tomorrow, we’ll probably be on [7th Circuit Judge] Diane Sykes,” she said.

She insisted Hardiman would be an “excellent choice” for the vacancy, and would fulfil Trump’s promise of picking a judge akin to Scalia. But, Severino added, she feels “like an Ivy League admissions office” with what she believes are a litany of great conservative choices being reported as under consideration.

“You’ve got all these people with 4.0s, and 1600 SAT scores,” Severino said, adding, “You can kind of pick which flavour and they’d all be great choices. That I think is the president’s task, but it’s a great problem to have.”

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