Notable cases: As a state court judge, Sears hasn't built a long record interpreting federal law. She wrote the 2007 ruling that released Genarlow Wilson from prison, based on the theory that his 10-year sentence, for having sex with a 15-year-old girl when he was 17, was "grossly disproportionate to his crime." In 2008, she dissented from a ruling of her court upholding the death sentence of a man who killed an off-duty cop. Seven of the nine witnesses against the defendant had recanted, some of them saying their trial testimony had been coerced. Sears said the court was skirting the "fundamental question": whether an innocent man was being put to death. She also opposed, in 2004, the Georgia Supreme Court's decision to allow on the ballot an amendment to the constitution that succeeded in banning same-sex marriage.
Kim McLane Wardlaw, 54, has 16 years of private practice (at the firm O'Melveny & Myers) to back up her 14 years on the bench. She had a business litigation practice with a specialty in intellectual property and media defense. Bill Clinton appointed Wardlaw to the federal district court in California after she volunteered for his presidential campaign in the 1992 election and served on the Clinton-Gore transition team at the Justice Department. In 1998, Clinton elevated her to the 9th Circuit. She sailed through both her confirmations with bipartisan support. (Sen. Dianne Feinstein is one of her backers.)
Don't let the blond chignon fool you: Wardlaw is the first Latina to serve on a federal appeals court. She is truly of mixed heritage—in this 2009 interview, she writes, "My mother was Mexican, Catholic, and Republican, while my father was a Scottish-Irish Presbyterian and a loyal Democrat." She also says: "Women can have it all, but not all at the same time. … The real life consequences of my desire to make partner as a litigator in an international law firm were that I did not marry until I was 30; did not have my first child until I was 35; and found myself at age 41 with a six-month-old infant daughter starting a job as a U.S. District Court Judge."
Notable cases: Wardlaw wrote the 9th Circuit opinion, now on appeal to the Supreme Court, which found a violation of the Fourth Amendment in an Arizona school's strip-search of a 13-year-old girl wrongly suspected of hiding prescription-strength ibuprofen in her underwear. Wardlaw wrote that "a reasonable school official, seeking to protect the students in his charge, does not subject a 13-year-old girl to a traumatic search to 'protect' her from the danger of Advil." At oral argument, the Supreme Court seemed likely to overturn Wardlaw's ruling, to the apparent despair of Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg.
In 2008, Wardlaw wrote the first appellate opinion giving Fourth Amendment protection to e-mail messages, in a case brought by government workers whose bosses wanted to search their e-mail accounts. The Electronic Frontier Foundation called the ruling "a tremendous victory for your online privacy." In another case on appeal to the Supreme Court this term, Wardlaw ruled that AT&T must give women who retired from the company credit, in calculating pension benefits, for work time lost decades ago for maternity leave. And in a 2004 ruling affirmed by the Supreme Court, Wardlaw strengthened the hand of the Environmental Protection Agency in enforcing the Clean Air Act, in a case about whether the EPA could stop a new pollution-spewing mine over the objections of the state of Alaska.
Pam Karlan, 50, teaches law at Stanford University. As founding director of the school's Supreme Court Litigation Clinic, she has helped represent dozens of defendants in criminal and civil rights matters, all free of charge. An expert on constitutional and election law, Karlan has served as assistant counsel at the NAACP Legal Defense and Educational Fund. Karlan has authored three leading casebooks on constitutional law (one of which Obama taught from) and is co-author of a brand new book, Keeping Faith With the Constitution, which offers a progressive theory of jurisprudential interpretation. Karlan confirmed to Politico that she is "counted among the LGBT crowd." Karlan, whose legal writing is both trenchant and prolific, has become something of a rock star on the legal conference circuit.
Karlan has no judicial record to probe, but she has an immense collection of writings. She argued at the Supreme Court in defense of the Voting Rights Act and wrote an amicus brief on behalf of legal academics in the 2003 case Lawrence v. Texas, arguing that laws against consensual sodomy were unconstitutional. She has defended criminal defendants in police search cases at the high court and has been a strong advocate for gay marriage. (Disclosure: Karlan is an acquaintance of Dahlia Lithwick's.)
Merrick Garland, 56, has something in common with four of the current Supreme Court justices: Like Roberts, Thomas, Scalia, and Ginsburg, he comes from the D.C. Circuit Court of Appeals, which, as the National Law Journal notes, is considered the second-most important court and a breeding ground for Supreme Court justices. After he graduated from Harvard Law School, Garland clerked for Justice William Brennan Jr., worked for Jimmy Carter's Justice Department, spent time in private practice and as a federal prosecutor, and returned to the DoJ under Clinton, where he oversaw the investigation of the Oklahoma City bombings and prosecuted the Unabomber. For this Supreme Court nomination, he bears the obvious liability of being a white male at a time when Obama is facing pressure on many fronts to nominate someone who has at most one of those traits.
Garland is usually described as a moderate liberal, engaging on the bench and getting along with conservative colleagues on the D.C. Circuit. He has a background in both antitrust and administrative law as well.
Notable cases: Last June, Garland wrote the D.C. Circuit Court's decision that Guantanamo detainee Huzaifa Parhat was unfairly classified as an enemy combatant. When Roberts still sat on the D.C. Circuit, he and Garland concurred on an opinion that granted a former D.C. Metro employee the right to sue for disability discrimination. Unlike Roberts, he voted not to rehear a case against a California developer who was challenging the Endangered Species Act over a dispute with the Arroyo toad, and he has generally sided with environmentalists.