Reporting from Washington — Nearly a generation ago, they were three young lawyers working their way up in the Clinton administration. Now, one of them could very well be the next justice on the U.S. Supreme Court.
For the record:
An article in Sunday's Section A about three contenders for the high court stated that Elena Kagan was named Harvard Law's first female dean in 1993. She was named dean in 2003.
Merrick Garland was a Justice Department official overseeing the trial of Oklahoma City bomber Timothy J. McVeigh from afar.
Diane Wood worked in the building too, specializing in antitrust law.
And down the street at the White House, Elena Kagan was taking on Big Tobacco.
Their paths later diverged. Garland stayed in Washington as a federal judge. Wood too became a judge, but in Chicago, while Kagan headed for academia.
But all three also shared commonalities -- of experience, training and even geography -- that have helped place them on the White House's short list to replace retiring Justice John Paul Stevens.
All three have ties to Chicago -- and by that token, to President Obama. Garland was born there. Wood and Kagan lectured at the University of Chicago, where Obama once taught constitutional law. Garland and Kagan, like Obama, are Harvard Law graduates.
All three hail from what some call the "judicial monastery" -- the highest levels of government service, the bench and academia. And although they would probably face different degrees of opposition from Republicans, any one would be considered a traditional choice.
For Garland, 57, it is his background in criminal law, particularly cases dealing with terrorism, that sets him apart from others on the list to replace Stevens.
The son of an advertising executive from the Chicago area, Garland arrived in Washington as a clerk for then-Supreme Court Justice William J. Brennan Jr. He never left, spending most of the 1980s in private practice with a local law firm
But Washington at the time was all but under siege from narcotics and gun violence, and Garland left the firm for public service, becoming an assistant federal prosecutor. Among the cases he handled was a drug investigation into then-Mayor Marion Barry.
"He gave up a lucrative law partnership to share an office prosecuting drug cases in D.C.," said Nicholas Gess, a fellow prosecutor. "Drugs were rampant and getting more rampant, and Merrick saw this as something he could help change."
From street prosecutions, he moved to the Department of Justice headquarters, eventually helping run the criminal division and serving as the principal associate deputy attorney general. From his new perch, he oversaw the prosecution of Unabomber Theodore Kaczynski and the cases coming out of the anti-government movement at Ruby Ridge, Idaho.
In 1997, Garland was nominated by President Clinton to the U.S. Court of Appeals for the District of Columbia Circuit, considered the nation's most crucial court behind the Supreme Court.
At the outset, Garland may have the easiest path to confirmation. He is considered a judicial moderate. On the appeals court, he largely handles regulatory and national security cases, thus avoiding others involving controversial social issues.
Wood, 59, has been a federal appeals judge even longer than Garland, since Clinton tapped her in 1995 after she served in the Justice Department for three years.
Wood obtained her undergraduate and law degrees at the University of Texas, which would, if she were selected, provide the high court with geographic diversity. She spent the bulk of the 1980s as a law professor at the University of Chicago before joining the Justice Department. She is an expert in antitrust law.
Among the three top-tier contenders, her selection by Obama would be greeted most warmly by the president's liberal base.
It would also probably trigger another bruising ideological standoff with conservatives, who contend Wood's writings and opinions show that she believes in a federal constitutional right to same-sex marriage, is markedly a supporter of abortion rights and would like to see the phrase "under God" removed from the Pledge of Allegiance.
"She's a liberal activist who was appointed to the bench and seemed to remain a liberal activist," said Tom Fitton, head of the conservative group Judicial Watch.
Many lawyers who have argued before Wood hold a different view. Mark Rotert, an attorney with the Chicago firm Stetler & Duffy, praised her demeanor and intellect while emphasizing that the liberal jurist label is an oversimplification.
"I think in terms of what is the proper relationship between government and business, my impression is that she would fairly be characterized as liberal in those kinds of areas," Rotert said.
On criminal procedures, however, "I'm not sure she fits the classic viewpoint of a liberal justice," he said.