Frank Pignanelli & LaVarr Webb: Lee is an unlikely court pick, but we speculate anyway

Across the country, Americans are experiencing an awful heat wave. And on the political weather front, passions will boil over as the Supreme Court nomination battle commences this week. We try to make sense of all the atmospherics.

Utah Sen. Mike Lee was interviewed as a potential Supreme Court nominee by President Donald Trump, who said he will announce his choice on Monday. Will Lee be nominated? And what does this mean for his career?

Pignanelli: “Markets excel at predicting horse races, election outcomes, and box-office results. But they're bad at predicting who will be the next Supreme Court nominee — which depends on the whim of the president.” — James Surowiecki

The Miss America Pageant recently announced the event will no longer include a swimsuit competition. Contestants are to be judged on talent, poise and accomplishment. Potential and actual nominees for the Supreme Court are not that lucky. They will endure scrutiny of every wart, excess and imperfection that exists on their body of work.

Because Lee can excel in the congressional equivalent of such scrutiny, his name is, and will continue to be, on a shortlist for the court. For decades, most nominees enjoyed an appellate court experience, an advantage that bumps elected officials from consideration. But Lee has overcome this deficit through authoring several books and articles that were well received in the legal community. Although his political rhetoric can sometimes be biting, these treatises are well crafted, balanced and easily read by anyone. Further, Lee is beloved inside the Federalist Society, which is guiding Trump on court matters. Yet, because of political dynamics, insiders are predicting that Trump will select an appellate court judge.

Gratefully, the junior senator does not need to sport a Speedo to prevail in a close examination. Thus, he will be at least runner-up in future contests.

Webb: A good case can be made for Lee, but it’s unlikely he’ll be nominated. Lee is the sort of committed, ideological conservative that Trump seeks for the high court, although some people say his brother, Thomas, has the better legal mind. Mike Lee’s temperament and personality are compatible with a judicial role.

As a member of the Senate club, he would have a good chance of being confirmed by his colleagues. He would certainly be savaged by liberal interest groups (as will any Trump nominee) and his Senate voting record, speeches and writings would be painstakingly scrutinized. His Mormon religion could be a factor, although Sen. Orrin Hatch and Mitt Romney have been playing at the highest levels of U.S. politics and have helped allay “Mormon” concerns.

All in all, being one of 10 or so finalists will be good for Lee’s career, and he’ll be in the mix for future appointments.

Sen. Orrin Hatch has been in the middle of every Supreme Court nomination battle for many decades. With Hatch retiring at year’s end, will Lee, also a member of the Judiciary Committee, pick up the mantle in driving the future of the court?

Pignanelli: This column regularly pokes fun at the senator’s obsession with all things constitutional. But we respect his prowess on even the most minute nuances. (He gets real excited about the commerce clause.) There are many lawyer politicians in D.C., but few with a recognized expertise that guarantees he shall be pivotal in shepherding nominees for all federal courts. Lee is expected to step into the role Hatch executed so well for decades.

Webb: It is a little poignant to see an old warrior like Hatch near the end of his career. He has been the point person on federal judgeships for many decades, pushing through the most critical judicial appointments. He will be greatly missed, especially as Senate Democrats continue to stonewall key appointments. Lee can certainly pick up the banner and carry on.

What does the appointment of a new justice mean for Utah and the elections this autumn?

Pignanelli: Americans and Utahns will soon be inundated with images of a dystopian future if Trump’s pick is approved or not approved (depending upon the special interest group paying for the message). This emotional controversy will seep deep into our local elections. Candidates need to be prepared.

Webb: If Lee is nominated and confirmed, it would obviously be great fun for Utah. Not only would a Utahn serve on the nation’s highest and most important court, but it would give Gov. Gary Herbert an appointment to the U.S. Senate.

That would set off a ripple of machinations by those hoping to be appointed and others affected. Herbert could appoint any number of people, including a community leader, a member of the House delegation, a member of the Legislature, someone on his staff — or himself. It could also spark a fight with the Republican State Central Committee, which could recommend candidates that Herbert might not like.

A Lee appointment would create political drama on many fronts.