Planning for A New Chief:
Tuesday's New York Times has a notable article on the Administration's plans for the replacement of Chief Justice Rehnquist:
  [F]or senior White House officials, as well as a handful of others who follow the court closely, a working assumption about what is going to happen has already taken shape. The strong expectation, senior administration officials and others said, is that Chief Justice Rehnquist is making his best effort to serve out the remainder of the term that ends in June before resigning. And the only question, they say, is whether the 80-year-old chief justice, who is suffering from thyroid cancer and the effects of his treatment, will be able to do so.
  The people who said that this was the assumption in the White House included senior administration officials, senior Congressional officials and people who have been consulted by senior White House officials.
  Top White House officials have discussed the situation, one of those people said, and have concluded that they will have to be ready for President Bush to make known his intentions for replacing the chief justice no later than June but possibly sooner. They have prepared ever-narrowing lists of candidates to be nominated for the court, one official said.
  . . . .
  . . . [I]t is improbable that the expectations about Chief Justice Rehnquist stem from any direct signal from him. Rather, it is the combination of several factors, including his age and illness and his statement years ago that he well understood the tradition in which justices try to leave when the White House is occupied by a president of the same party as the one who nominated that justice.
According to the Times, the four key names on the Administration's short list are: 1) Michael W. McConnell of the United States Court of Appeals for the 10th Circuit, 2) John G. Roberts of the United States Court of Appeals for the District of Columbia, 3) J. Harvie Wilkinson III of the United States Court of Appeals for the Fourth Circuit, and 4) J. Michael Luttig of the United States Court of Appeals for the Fourth Circuit. Mentioned as "[a]nother possible candidate" is Samuel A. Alito of the United States Court of Appeals for the Third Circuit.

  The notable part about this short list is that the candidates are the intellectual heavy hitters culled from previous lists. All four of the candidates on the primary list are themselves former Supreme Court clerks, and they are widely considered to be some of the brightest stars in the federal judiciary. Alito has stellar credentials and is right there with them, too. There isn't a dud in the group.

  Which judge the President will select for the Court likely depends on what kind of Chief Justice the President wants to see. Wilkinson probably would be the most like Rehnquist: a reliable conservative but with strong tactical instincts. Luttig has the harder ideological edge, which is an asset if there are more openings for Bush to fill but a potential liability if he needs to keep Kennedy and O'Connor on board. Both Roberts and McConnell are brilliant, articulate and could be intellectual leaders on the Court for a generaton, but both are also fairly new and relatively untested as lower court judges. Alito would be a reliable conservative and could excel at building consensus across the ideological spectrum.

  At this point, my own preference is John Roberts first and Michael McConnell second. I think Roberts and McConnell are the two judges on the short list with the strongest potential to be "great" Chief Justices.

  I have a preference for Roberts not only because he is considered one of the best (if not the best) Supreme Court lawyers of his generation, but because his opinions as a D.C. Circuit judge have been simply outstanding. I've read about a half dozen Roberts opinions in the last year, and they were all models for what an appellate opinion should be. Tight, focused, scholarly, and balanced. They were beautifully written, too; the guy can make even FERC disputes seem interesting. I also saw a dash of Robert Jackson in them — a sort of perspective that reflects a deep understanding of how this case fits into other ones. Finally, Roberts pulls it off without being flashy. His opinions are highly readable but don't beg for more attention. Excellent stuff.