By Bill Mears, FOX NEWS POLITICS
After an 11-month political standstill on filling the Supreme Court vacancy, the wait may be worth it for conservative activists eager to see President Trump choose a like-minded nominee to replace the late Justice Antonin Scalia.
According to Trump, the decision is coming soon.
“I’ll be making my decision this week, we’ll be announcing next week,” Trump said, after meeting Tuesday with Senate leaders from both parties to discuss the vacancy. “We’ll pick a truly great Supreme Court justice.”
This, as sources close to the selection process tell Fox News the list of possible candidates is now down to three names, all of them federal appeals court judges: Judge William Pryor in Alabama, Judge Neil Gorsuch in Colorado, and Judge Thomas Hardiman in Pennsylvania.
Trump has met personally with all three, sources say.
Trump said at a press conference last week before he took office that a decision would come within two weeks of his being sworn in. Press Secretary Sean Spicer reinforced that rough timeline on Monday, saying the nomination remains a “priority.”
The three judges in play were all on the original list of 21 candidates Trump announced as a presidential candidate last year, and supporters tout their conservative credentials:
— Judge William Pryor, who sits on the 11th Circuit U.S. Court of Appeals, with chambers in Birmingham, Ala.
Pryor is close to Attorney General nominee Jeff Sessions, the Alabama senator. Born in 1962, he was initially given a recess appointment to the appeals court. Senate Democrats then tried to block Pryor’s subsequent nominations, citing his strong criticism of the Roe v. Wade decision establishing a woman’s right to an abortion. He called it the “worst abomination in the history of constitutional law.”
— Judge Neil Gorsuch, on the 10th Circuit U.S. Court of Appeals, with chambers in Denver
Born 1967, he went to Harvard Law School, then clerked for Justices Byron White and Anthony Kennedy. He went into private practice in Washington before joining the Bush Justice Department. His mother is Anne Burford, the first female administrator at the EPA. Gorsuch wrote the book “The Future of Assisted Suicide and Euthanasia.”
His name has been rising in Trump’s circle in recent weeks.
— Judge Thomas Hardiman, 3rd Circuit U.S. Court of Appeals, with chambers in Pittsburgh
Born 1965, he saw the Supreme Court affirm his 2010 ruling that a jail policy of strip-searching all those arrested does not violate the Fourth Amendment’s ban on “unreasonable searches and seizures.” Hardiman sits on the same court as Trump’s sister, Judge Maryanne Trump Barry, who despite the family ties is not being considered for any high court vacancy.
The fact Hardiman did not attend an Ivy League school (as a Notre Dame undergrad and Georgetown Law grad) may appeal to Trump’s populist leanings, as could the fact he drove a taxi to finance his education.
Three other federal appeals court judges touted by their supporters include Diane Sykes, based in Wisconsin, Judge Raymond Kethledge of Michigan and Raymond Gruender of Missouri.
All are appointees of George W. Bush, a sign that judicial picks can have a far-reaching impact years, even decades, after presidents leaving elected office. Federal judges serve for life, and seven of the eight current justices all served in lower federal appeals courts.
Some state supreme court justices are on Trump’s broader list of 21, but sources say federal judges have a proven record of cases from which to vet, and the fact they have been through a congressional confirmation before is an advantage.
Trump’s outreach with Senate leaders follows Vice President Pence’s more low-key meeting with two moderate Democrats last week.
White House officials see Sens. Joe Manchin of West Virginia and Joe Donnelly of Indiana as key to ensuring a filibuster-proof majority to confirm what is sure to be a conservative choice.
“Today was really about talking about our legislative agenda, but also meeting with members of the Senate to get their input on the President’s decision about filling the vacancy on the Supreme Court,” Pence said after his meetings.
But Senate Minority Leader Charles Schumer, D-N.Y., has said he is prepared to fight.
“Let’s see who they nominate,” he said earlier this month. “If they’re in the mainstream we’ll give them a very careful look. If they’re out of the mainstream we’ll oppose them tooth and nail.”
Feelings remain raw among many on the left, after President Obama’s choice to replace Scalia languished without Senate action, part of a deliberate move by Republicans to wait out the president’s term. Judge Merrick Garland this month returned to his old job on the D.C. Circuit federal appeals court.
A go-slow approach could complicate the White House’s goal of seating a justice by mid-April when the last oral arguments of the term would begin.
White House Counsel Don McGahn is leading the vetting process, with input from senior administration legal and political advisers, including Sessions. Outside conservative advisers include Leonard Leo of the Federalist Society and Jim DeMint of the Heritage Foundation.
Sources close to the selection process did not rule out other names being added late in what has emerged as a fast-moving, dynamic process.
Fox News’ Shannon Bream contributed to this report.