Gov. Pawlenty’s Next Court Pick

Within the next month, President Barack Obama will nominate the next associate justice of the Supreme Court. For many, the selection of federal judges is one of the most important things a President can do, and President Obama’s nomination will set off a debate over not just his nominee, but the role of the Supreme Court in American society as well.

President Obama is not the only executive who will make an anticipated court pick in the coming weeks. Governors often get to nominate justices too. One in particular, Minnesota Governor Tim Pawlenty, is also in the process of making a Supreme Court pick to replace retiring state supreme court justice Eric Magnuson. While it may not grab headlines, Pawlenty’s pick could reveal something about Pawlenty’s political aspirations.

State-level judicial selections rarely capture national headlines, but they are closely followed by political activists. Florida Governor Charlie Crist’s veto of a school reform measure may be conspicuous evidence his break with conservatives, but conservative activists had soured on him much earlier over his picks for Florida’s high court. Sunshine state conservative activists believe Crist failed to match the picks of his predecessor, and that his high court selections only got worse over time. With his last pick, Gov. Crist elevated a state judge who had been admonished for a minor ethical lapse as a private attorney in 1995 and had a noticeably high reversal rate, passing over a highly qualified and well-respected judge favored by conservatives.

What course will Governor Pawlenty follow? Like Crist, Pawlenty has something of a moderate image – something that may have helped him succeed in a battleground state like Minnesota. Yet like Crist, Pawlenty appears to have greater political aspirations. As a potential contender for the 2012 GOP presidential nomination, he may seek to burnish his conservative credentials to appeal to activists and primary voters. One way to do this is through his judicial picks. Conservative activists place particular importance on judicial nominations, and are likely to notice if Pawlenty’s pick for the Minnesota Supreme Court falls short. Thus far, conservatives seem pleased with his court appointments, but this time around they’ll likely be paying closer attention.  With all this in mind, it will be interesting to see what course Pawlenty takes.