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Once again, those who speculate about potential nominees to the U.S. Supreme Court are mentioning the name of Larry D. Thompson. The time might be right for the former Atlanta federal prosecutor, King & Spalding partner, deputy U.S. attorney general and current general counsel for food and beverage giant PepsiCo Inc. Political and legal experts say that Thompson, who impressed Democrats as he sailed to Senate confirmation for his Justice Department post in 2001, could provide President Bush with a solid conservative choice without galvanizing harsh liberal opposition. A painless confirmation could help the president deal with low approval ratings that stem from criticism of the federal response to hurricane victims, high gas prices and continued trouble in Iraq. “Given his relatively weak political situation at the moment, Bush will try to find someone to be confirmed with as little a fight as possible,” said University of Georgia political scientist John A. Maltese, author of “The Selling of Supreme Court Nominees.” Thompson, 59, would not comment on the possibility of his being tapped for the high court, according to a Pepsi spokesman. A graduate of the University of Michigan law school, Thompson had a reputation in Atlanta for good judgment, careful attention to detail, and an ability to bargain. His nomination to the No. 2 spot at the Justice Department was endorsed by the National Association of Criminal Defense Lawyers. To be sure, Thompson’s name is among many federal appeals court judges, other jurists and lawyers who are being discussed since Chief Justice William Rehnquist’s death created a second open seat on the high court since July. Bush’s renomination of Judge John G. Roberts Jr. to replace Rehnquist as chief justice makes a Thompson nomination more likely, some say. Roberts had been chosen initially to fill the seat of retiring Justice Sandra Day O’Connor, a longtime swing vote whose seat was targeted as a key for liberal groups interested in preserving abortion rights. Now that Roberts has been shifted to replace Rehnquist, a reliable conservative, Bush would be hard-pressed to nominate an ideological conservative to succeed O’Connor. “I think it certainly bodes well for the possibility for Larry being nominated,” said U.S. Sen. Saxby Chambliss, R-Ga., who supports Thompson. “Larry is not an ultra-right-winger by any stretch, and that means the folks on the left shouldn’t have great objection to him.” CONSERVATIVE SUPPORT But Thompson, a native of Hannibal, Mo., also needs the support of conservative groups who focus on social issues such as repealing abortion rights, promoting the display of the Ten Commandments in public buildings and a constitutional ban on same-sex marriage. The American Center for Law and Justice, the legal advocacy organization founded by conservative Christian broadcaster Pat Robertson, would give strong support to a Thompson nomination. “Larry would be a phenomenal pick for the Supreme Court,” said Jay A. Sekulow, chief counsel of the American Center for Law and Justice. “I would back him completely and work diligently on his behalf. Larry clearly understands the role of judiciary, which is that judges don’t make social policy; legislators do.” FRIENDSHIP WITH THOMAS Thompson’s longtime friendship with Justice Clarence Thomas could help assuage the fears of conservatives who don’t want Bush to name a justice in the mold of David H. Souter, whose support of abortion rights and other decisions have bitterly disappointed conservatives. Thompson was a key adviser to Thomas during his 1991 Senate confirmation hearings to the Supreme Court — which could pose a problem with Democrats. In response to allegations that Thomas sexually harassed Anita Hill while she worked for him at the U.S. Equal Employment Opportunity Commission, Thompson suggested that Hill could have been suffering from a delusional disorder that would have allowed her to pass a polygraph test, according to transcripts. “I would be surprised if the issue of Thompson’s role advising Thomas on Anita Hill didn’t come up” at confirmation hearing, said Elliot M. Mincberg, general counsel of People for the American Way, a liberal group that opposes Roberts’ nomination. Mincberg pointed out other potential Democratic fodder — Thompson’s support of broader federal surveillance power in the wake of Sept. 11 and his former role on the board of directors at Providian Financial Corp. In 2002, Judicial Watch filed suit against Thompson and other directors, claiming he artificially inflated the stock price of Providian in order to illegally increase his earnings in the sale of stock. Thompson denied any wrongdoing. LIBERAL OPPOSITION DISCOUNTED Bruce Fein, a conservative court watcher and former Justice Department official during the Reagan administration, discounted the possibility of liberal opposition to a Thompson nomination. “Would Democrats really turn down Larry Thompson, a second black [member of the high court], when Republicans are going out of their way to recruit blacks into their ranks?” asked Fein. “Perhaps a Thompson nomination could blunt the notion that the rescue missions in New Orleans are racially motivated.” On the other hand, Fein noted that Thompson’s lack of any judicial experience could hurt his chances, especially with some social-issues conservatives, because he hasn’t stated a formal position on topics like abortion. “It’s very important to not choose someone who’s largely tabula rasa to confront these issues for the first time, if you’re trying to change the direction of the Supreme Court,” Fein said. “Otherwise, you’re very susceptible to the op-ed pages of the Washington Post and the New York Times and you get someone who is largely going by the prevailing winds, which are not friendly to conservatives.” That lack of judicial experience also could work in Thompson’s favor, if Bush wants to change the makeup of the Supreme Court by adding attorneys who have experience in other areas. “I think it’s a real benefit to put on the court someone who has had other experiences,” said Hugh Peterson Jr., who worked with Thompson at King & Spalding on cases before and after Thompson’s stint in the U.S. Attorney’s Office in the 1980s. “Larry would bring a very, very valuable point of view that has nothing to do with ideology, or hot-button issues, but has a lot to do with the vast majority of issues that come before the Supreme Court. He would have an excellent judicial temperament and would judge every case on its merits.” FEAR OF THE UNKNOWN Bradford A. Berenson, a former associate counsel to President Bush, suggested that Thompson’s unknown judicial philosophy could provoke some conservatives to oppose him the way some have opposed Attorney General Alberto R. Gonzales’ potential appointment to the high court. “Conservative groups might feel with Larry, as they apparently do with Gonzales, that there is not a sufficient paper trail on issues of importance to them,” said Berenson, a partner at Sidley Austin Brown & Wood. J. Randolph Evans, partner at McKenna Long & Aldridge and general counsel of the Georgia Republican Party, said conservatives should feel comfortable with Thompson. “After all, he was deputy to John Ashcroft and worked in the Bush administration, and worked very well with both of them,” he said. “Those kinds of things don’t happen if you don’t share their judicial and political philosophy.” Of course, there is the question of whether Thompson wants the job of Supreme Court justice. After he left the Justice Department in 2003, the Daily Report asked Thompson if he’d considered a Supreme Court nomination. His reply: “I just can’t speculate on those kinds of things. The things I’m going to be concerned about doing are the kinds of things I have always wanted to do — doing a better job at working on life.”

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