SALT LAKE CITY — President Donald Trump interviewed Utah Sen. Mike Lee on Monday about the coming vacancy on the U.S. Supreme Court, the Deseret News has learned.
Lee, who is in Utah for the Fourth of July holiday, confirmed the telephone interview but would not elaborate on the conversation. White House spokesman Raj Shah also confirmed Tuesday that the president spoke with the Republican senator on the phone.
At a town hall meeting last week, Lee said that if he were asked to consider the job, "I would not say no."
Trump is expected to reveal his choice to replace retiring Justice Anthony Kennedy next week. Lee, who is in his second term, is on the list of 25 potential nominees Trump prepared during his 2016 presidential campaign.
The president has interviewed federal appellate judge Brett Kavanaugh, Amy Coney Barrett, Raymond Kethledge and Amul Thapar, according to the Washington Post. Another judge on Trump’s shortlist is federal appeals court Judge Thomas Hardiman, the Post reported.
It now appears Lee also is in the running, though unlike the other apparent contenders he has no judicial experience.
Given Democratic intransigence and the Republicans’ scalpel-thin Senate majority, the president’s wisest and safest bet may be to recommend Lee, "a young constitutionalist conservative" who would be tough for Senate Democrats to vote against, according to the National Review.
At least two Republicans, Sen. Susan Collins of Maine and Sen. Lisa Murkowski of Alaska, could be a tough sell because of Lee's staunch opposition to abortion and call for restrictions on the procedure after 20 weeks. Both have voiced support for the legality of abortion, and Collins has said that she would find any nominee who opposes the Roe v. Wade decision "unacceptable."
The Supreme Court vacancy might not imperil abortion rights and same-sex marriage to the degree their defenders have suggested, Lee told Fox News' "Fox & Friends" last week.
"All of those issues involve cases that have been decided previously by the Supreme Court. It's one thing for them to assume that a Republican appointee might come at those issues from a different worldview as a matter of first impression,” he said. “They have to take into account the doctrine of stare decisis, which is a doctrine that generally puts the Supreme Court on a path of following precedent."
Trump will need some Democrats to get his nominee confirmed, and Lee, a member of the Senate Judiciary Committee, has reached across the aisle on several issues. He has worked with Sens. Dick Durbin, D-Ill., and Cory Booker, D-N.J., on criminal justice reform, Patrick Leahy, D-Vt., on patent reform and Sen. Dianne Feinstein, D-Calif., on indefinite detention.
"Far away from the spotlight, cameras and headlines, Lee has spent years working with Senate colleagues across the political spectrum on critical issues," said Boyd Matheson, former Lee chief of staff who now works as the Deseret News opinion editor.
"While these heavy-hitting allies would certainly prove beneficial in a confirmation hearing, the fact that Lee collaborates this way on principles pertaining to the law is far more important for a potential jurist on the Supreme Court."
Carl Tobias, the Williams Chair in Law at the University of Richmond, said Lee is receiving serious consideration, but might not be at the top of Trump's list.
"The senator is very smart and very conservative and senatorial courtesy may be important," he told the Deseret News.
Tobias said Lee would fare will in confirmation hearings because he's intelligent, articulate and thinks well on his feet. He said Democrats would likely rigorously quiz him on some of his very conservative views.
Lee's lack of judicial experience isn't a deal breaker, he said, noting other candidates under consideration have little more than the senator.
And "Trump is nothing if not unpredictable," Tobias said.
Former South Carolina GOP Sen. Jim DeMint, now chairman of the Conservative Partnership Institute, has pressed Trump to nominate Lee.
"He has exactly the brilliance, the background and temperament that President Trump should be looking for," DeMint wrote in the Daily Caller. "But he also has the rarest of qualities: courage — the willingness to do the right thing, no matter what."
DeMint said Lee has the mind to "dominate" his confirmation hearing and the "character" to win a few Democrat votes.
Sen. Ted Cruz, R-Texas, one of Lee's closest allies in the Senate, called Lee the "single best choice" to fill the Supreme Court vacancy.
Sen. Orrin Hatch, R-Utah, didn't have a comment Tuesday on the possibility of Lee being a candidate for the position.
Hatch spokesman Matt Whitlock said the senator has discussed the upcoming nomination with Trump and White House counsel, and was heavily involved in the president's initial list.
"He is confident the president will nominate a strong and capable choice, and will lift heaven and earth to see them confirmed," Whitlock said.
Lee earned a law degree from Brigham Young University and served as law clerk to Judge Dee Benson of the U.S. District Court in Utah, and then with future Supreme Court Justice Judge Samuel A. Alito Jr. on the U.S. Court of Appeals for the 3rd Circuit. He spent several years as an attorney with the law firm Sidley Austin in Chicago specializing in appellate and Supreme Court litigation.
Lee is son of the late Rex Lee, who served as U.S. solicitor general under former President Ronald Reagan and as president of BYU. Lee's brother, Utah Supreme Court Justice Thomas Lee, is also on Trump's 2016 list.