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The Supreme Court Building is seen, Thursday, March 5, 2009, on Capitol Hill in Washington.  (AP Photo/J. Scott Applewhite)

The Outsider, the Insider, and the Grass Roots Favorite: meet Trump's top Supreme Court contenders


WASHINGTON (Circa) -- Trump's shortlist to replace retiring Supreme Court Justice Anthony Kennedy has been widdled down to three nominees, two of which are considered top contenders. Here's what you should know about each of them.

The Outsider: Raymond Kethledge

Judge Raymond Kethledge
Judge Raymond Kethledge headshot

Kethledge is an outsider both figuratively and literally. The 51 year-old Michigander prefers the great outdoors of northern Michigan to the humid city life of Washington, D.C. But don't let his lack of political connections fool you, Kethledge certainly has the resume to be on this list.

Kethledge currently sits on the Sixth Circuit for the U.S. Court of Appeals. A Michigan law grad, he started his career by clerking for Judge Ralph Guy on the Sixth Circuit, which he later followed up with a clerkship for none other than the man he might be replacing, Justice Anthony Kennedy. After that, he spent time as a lawyer and a professor at his alma mater before President George W. Bush nominated him to the Sixth Circuit in 2006. He's also the co-author of "Lead Yourself First," a book about leadership.

But it's not Kethledge's credentials that make him stand apart, it's his story. He's not part of the polished Harvard/Yale east coast class that has come to dominate the Supreme Court in recent years. Kethledge helped pay his way through law school working as a busboy, waiter, and landscaper, according to the legal news organization Above the Law. He is known to write his own opinions (something of a rarity these days) in a private office he built in his barn. Heated by a wood stove and incapable of receiving cell service, Kethledge prefers the office for its ability to let him disconnect and focus.

Politically, Kethledge's background could be a bonus for Trump, who came into office thanks to his appeal to some mid-westerners. And don't forget the upcoming Senate election in which Democratic Sen. Debbie Stabenow will have to defend her seat in a state Trump won.

"Would she vote against a homegrown product because other Democrats demand it?" wrote conservative commentator Hugh Hewitt in a piece for the Washington Post endorsing Kethledge. "Stabenow’s likely challenger John James hopes she does. The nomination process is a windfall to every GOP nominee in every Senate race, but it would especially benefit James (and thus Mitch McConnell and the president) by adding an upset special to the long list of vulnerable incumbent Democrats, especially in states the president won handily."

The Insider: Brett Kavanaugh

Brett Kavanaugh
Judge Brett Kavanaugh's Court of Appeals headshot.

With his perfectly parted hair, if anyone looked the part of the east coast politico, it's the 53 year-old Brett Kavanaugh. Born in Washington, D.C. to a mother who served as a Maryland state circuit court judge, Kavanaugh went on to become a Yale man in the tradition of many top-flight legal professionals before him.

Like Kethledge, Kavanaugh also clerked for Kennedy. He made his first foray into the political sphere authoring the Starr report for Congress that recommended the impeachment of Presidenit Bill Clinton. A few years later, he would work for President George W. Bush, who eventually nominated him to the D.C. Circuit for the U.S. Court of Appeals, where he currently sits.

Kavenaugh could bring an advantage because he carries the Yale "name brand," noted Ilya Shapiro, the Cato Institute's senior fellow in constitutional studies.

"Definitely a creature of Washington, but with strong conservative credentials, he's not necessarily an establishment or a party guy," said Shapiro, who added Kavenaugh is reportedly the favorite of White House counsel Don McGahn.

Kavenaugh has a long, conservative judicial record going back over a decade. That evidence could help his chances with both Trump and Senate Republicans who would prefer a conservative justice who can influence the court for years to come.

But there have been some concerns in conservative circles that he may be too much like Chief Justice John Roberts, he added. While Roberts was put into place by the Republican George W. Bush, he has not been as staunch a conservative as some thought, specifically when he sided with the liberal justices upholding Obamacare.

The Grass Roots favorite: Amy Coney Barrett

Judge Amy Coney Barrett
Judge Amy Coney Barrett's headshot from Notre Dame University

Coney Barrett's legal resume is just as well-founded as the other potential nominees. A Notre Dame law grad, she went on to clerk for the late Justice Antonin Scalia. Most her career has been spent as a practicing lawyer and as a professor at her alma mater. She joined the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Seventh District last November.

Of all the names on Trump's list, Coney Barrett has probably received the most criticism. She was one of Trump's earliest judicial nominees, but her confirmation hearing took an awkward turn when Sen. Dianne Feinsten (D-CA) questioned her.

"The dogma lives loudly within you, and that’s of concern when you come to big issues that people have fought for for years in this country," said Feinstein during Coney Barrett's confirmation hearing last year.

The "dogma" Feinstein was referring to is Coney Barrett's Catholic religious background, specifically whether she would uphold Roe v. Wade, the Supreme Court which set the standard for abortion rights across the country. This concern arose from an article Coney Barrett authored in 1998 in which she argued Catholic judges may need to recuse themselves in cases involving the death penalty because of their moral objections. Coney Barrett appeared to walk back that argument in the hearing when she said: "It is never appropriate to impose that judge's personal convictions, whether they arise from faith or anywhere else, on the law."

Coney Barrett faced further scrutiny in a New York Times profile which reported she was a member of People of Praise, a small, close-knit Christian community. Members swear a lifetime oath and operate under a spiritual adviser who counsels them on important life decisions, according to the Times report.

The criticism of Coney Barrett's background had the unintentional result of endearing her to some conservatives, according to Politico.

At 46, she would be the youngest of Trump's top three options, which would potentially give her decades of influence on the court.

"They are all solid, standard, originalist, textualist nominees," said Shapiro. "I don't think the President is going to go wrong from his perspective, from the perspective from the Federalist Society, [or among] Conservative legal elites."

Whoever the nominee is will likely face a grilling from Senate Democrats during their confirmation hearing, but with a Republican majority in Congress and no filibuster to worry about, Trump's final choice, which he said he will announce Monday, will more than likely end up on the court.

Sanders discusses Trump's Supreme Court

Sanders on President Trump's Supreme Court pick

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