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Hatch is a good bet for next chief justice

WASHINGTON — Who will be the next chief justice of the U.S. Supreme Court? Sources tell us the first name on the short list is a natural. Chief Justice William Rehnquist is planning to retire this year, probably by summer. He merely wanted to see a Republican in the White House before doing so, which his crucial vote during the election contest helped to ensure.

Meanwhile, President Bush is on record as saying his two favorite justices are Antonin Scalia and Clarence Thomas, the two most conservative justices. They, along with Rehnquist, form the conservative wing of the court. They also form the controversial wing. There are lingering doubts about Thomas' ability and Scalia's temperament, facts that make both of them difficult sells for the top job.

The problem for Bush is finding someone whose political and judicial philosophy matches that of those three and whose appointment is likely to be approved by a Senate that is split 50-50 between Republicans and Democrats.

He accomplished this feat in the attorney general appointment by nominating former Sen. John Ashcroft of Missouri. Ashcroft, who is an ardent social and fiscal conservative, was confirmed in part because he had belonged to the Senate "club."

Because that strategy worked so well, Bush is likely to try it again. But a chief justice appointment is for life, and Democratic senators are not going to be as compliant as they were on the Ashcroft nomination.

Bush is going to need a nominee who is far less controversial. In fact, he will need someone who is downright popular with his fellow senators in addition to being eminently qualified for the job. As the song from "Camelot" goes, "But where in the world is there in the world a man so extraordinaire?"

Given this criteria, the odds-on favorite must be Sen. Orrin Hatch, R-Utah. As chairman of the Senate Judiciary Committee, he is eminently qualified. Philosophically, he is a solid conservative, and in the Senate, he is without enemies. Indeed, one of his best friends is Sen. Ted Kennedy, D-Mass.

When we broached the subject with him, he simply said, "Anyone would be honored to be considered, but I'm not campaigning for the job." And in fact, he is not. But other sources tell us that Hatch is always on the short list for Republican Supreme Court appointments. And in this evenly split Congress, he would breeze through without a dissenting vote.

He is conservative enough for the conservatives and compassionate enough for the liberals. He is an intellectual who ponders the impact of implied versus expressed constitutional powers. He is a coalition builder who can cite numerous reasons why justices from a variety of philosophical bents are qualified, competent and successful.

And he views all of the current justices as decent, diligent and sincere. He played a role in most of their confirmations.

But will he be tapped? We predict he will.

Other possible candidates would probably come from the federal bench and would be too little known to most senators. They would undergo intense scrutiny, and even the slightest blemishes on their records could prove fatal. There is no other candidate so "extraordinaire."

United Feature Syndicate Inc.