Trump set to announce hotly anticipated US Supreme Court pick

WASHINGTON, July 9 (Reuters) - President Donald Trump is set on Monday night to announce his nominee for a lifetime position on the U.S. Supreme Court, with four conservative federal appellate judges as the top contenders to succeed retiring long-time Justice Anthony Kennedy.

The Republican president, with an opportunity to further put his stamp on the court with the second appointee of his 18 months in office, is expected to choose among four judges with strong conservative credentials: Thomas Hardiman, Brett Kavanaugh, Raymond Kethledge and Amy Coney Barrett.

All are young enough that they could serve on the nine-member high court for decades. Trump, who has touted Supreme Court nominations as among the most important task of his presidency, is poised to make his announcement at 9 p.m. (0100 GMT Tuesday).

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Possible replacements for Supreme Court Justice Kennedy
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Possible replacements for Supreme Court Justice Kennedy

Brett Kavanaugh

(Photo by Dennis Brack/Bloomberg via Getty Images)

Thomas Hardiman 

Photo Credit: SCOTUS Blog

Amy Coney Barrett

Photo Credit: University of Notre Dame

Judge Raymond Kethledge of Michigan, who serves on the 6th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals, is seen in this 2017 photo released by Bloomsbury Publishing Inc. in New York, New York, U.S., July 6, 2018.

(Courtesy Bloomsbury/Abdul El-Tayef/WPPi.com for Raymond Kethledge/Handout via REUTERS)

Mike Lee

 Photographer: Andrew Harrer/Bloomberg via Getty Images

Amul Thapar

Photo Credit: UVA Law

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A person familiar with the selection process indicated Trump is narrowing the field, with Barrett the least likely among the four to be chosen.

"The president was very impressed with Barrett but said on a number of occasions it might be best to save her for a future vacancy," the source said, speaking on condition of anonymity.

Hardiman, 53, has served on the Philadelphia-based 3rd U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals since 2007, having been appointed by Republican former President George W. Bush, after four years as a U.S. district judge in western Pennsylvania. Hardiman, a one-time cab driver from Waltham, Massachusetts who was the first member of his family to attend college, served alongside Trump's older sister, Judge Maryanne Trump Barry, on the 3rd Circuit. She no longer hears cases.

Kavanaugh, 53, has served on the influential U.S. Court of Appeals for the District of Columbia Circuit since 2006. A former White House aide under Bush who previously worked for Kenneth Starr, the independent counsel who investigated Democratic former President Bill Clinton in the 1990s, he faced a long confirmation battle when Bush nominated him to his current post.

Kethledge, 51, has served on the Cincinnati-based 6th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals since 2008 after also being appointed by Bush. A former aide to a Republican senator, Kethledge also previously worked as an in-house lawyer for Ford Motor Co.

Barrett, 46, has the least judicial experience of the four, with only eight months as a judge after spending most of her career as a conservative legal scholar. Barrett was appointed by Trump to the Chicago-based 7th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals last year. Barrett, a married mother of seven and a devout Roman Catholic, is a favorite among social conservatives and conservative Christian leaders.

IDEOLOGICAL BREAKDOWN

The appointment will not change the ideological breakdown of a court that already has a 5-4 conservative majority, but nevertheless could move the court to the right. Kennedy sometimes joined the liberal justices on key rulings on divisive social issues like abortion and gay rights, a practice his replacement may not duplicate.

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Supreme Court Justice Anthony Kennedy
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Supreme Court Justice Anthony Kennedy
WASHINGTON, DC - APRIL 10: U.S. Supreme Court Associate Justice Anthony Kennedy is seen during a ceremony in the Rose Garden at the White House April 10, 2017 in Washington, DC. Earlier in the day Gorsuch, 49, was sworn in as the 113th Associate Justice in a private ceremony at the Supreme Court. (Photo by Eric Thayer/Getty Images)
Justices of the US Supreme Court sit for their official group photo at the Supreme Court in Washington, DC, on June 1, 2017. Seated (L-R): Associate Justices Ruth Bader Ginsburg and Anthony M. Kennedy, Chief Justice of the US John G. Roberts, Associate Justices Clarence Thomas and Stephen Breyer. Standing (L-R): Associate Justices Elena Kagan, Samuel Alito Jr., Sonia Sotomayor and Neil Gorsuch. / AFP PHOTO / SAUL LOEB (Photo credit should read SAUL LOEB/AFP/Getty Images)
WASHINGTON, DC - APRIL 10: U.S. Supreme Court Associate Justices Anthony Kennedy and Neil Gorsuch are seen during a ceremony in the Rose Garden at the White House April 10, 2017 in Washington, DC. Earlier in the day Gorsuch, 49, was sworn in as the 113th Associate Justice in a private ceremony at the Supreme Court. (Photo by Eric Thayer/Getty Images)
U.S. Supreme Court Justice Neil Gorsuch, left, embraces Associate Justice Anthony Kennedy after taking the oath of office during a ceremony in the Rose Garden at the White House in Washington, D.C., U.S., on Monday, April 10, 2017. U.S. President Donald Trump said Gorsuch is 'deeply faithful to the Constitution' in the beginning of his speech at the start of the ceremony. Photographer: T.J. Kirkpatrick/Bloomberg via Getty Images
WASHINGTON, DC - APRIL 10: U.S. Supreme Court Associate Justice Anthony Kennedy delivers remarks before administering the judicial oath to Judge Neil Gorsuch during a ceremony in the Rose Garden at the White House April 10, 2017 in Washington, DC. Earlier in the day Gorsuch, 49, was sworn in as the 113th Associate Justice in a private ceremony at the Supreme Court. (Photo by Chip Somodevilla/Getty Images)
UNITED STATES - FEBRUARY 28: President Donald Trump greets Supreme Court Justice Anthony Kennedy after addressing a joint session of Congress in the Capitol's House Chamber, February 28, 2017. (Photo By Tom Williams/CQ Roll Call)
WASHINGTON, DC - JANUARY 20: Supreme Court Justices Anthony Kennedy, Clarence Thomas and John Roberts arrive on the West Front of the U.S. Capitol on January 20, 2017 in Washington, DC. In today's inauguration ceremony Donald J. Trump becomes the 45th president of the United States. (Photo by Drew Angerer/Getty Images)
WASHINGTON, DC - FEBRUARY 20: U.S. Supreme Court Associate Justice Anthony Kennedy arrives for the funeral of fellow Associate Justice Antonin Scalia at the the Basilica of the National Shrine of the Immaculate Conception February 20, 2016 in Washington, DC. Scalia, who died February 13 while on a hunting trip in Texas, layed in repose in the Great Hall of the Supreme Court on Friday and his funeral service will be at the basillica today. (Photo by Chip Somodevilla/Getty Images)
WASHINGTON, DC - FEBRUARY 19: Supreme Court Justices Elena Kagan, left, Samuel Anthony Alito, Jr., Ruth Bader Ginsburg, and Anthony M. Kennedy react during prayers at a private ceremony in the Great Hall of the Supreme Court where late Supreme Court Justice Antonin Scalia lies in repose on February 19, 2016 in Washington, DC. Justice Scalia will lie in repose in the Great Hall of the high court where visitors will pay their respects. (Photo by Jacquelyn Martin - Pool/Getty Images)
US Supreme Court Chief Justice John Roberts (L) and Justices Anthony Kennedy (2nd L), Ruth Bader Ginsburg (C), Stephen Breyer (2nd R) and Sonia Sotomayor listen to US President Barack Obama deliver the State of the Union address at the US Capitol in Washington, DC, on January 12, 2016. Obama gives his final State of the Union address, perhaps the last opportunity of his presidency to sway a national audience and frame the 2016 election. / AFP / NICHOLAS KAMM (Photo credit should read NICHOLAS KAMM/AFP/Getty Images)
UNITED STATES - SEPTEMBER 24: Supreme Court Chief Justice John Roberts, left, and Justice Anthony Kennedy, attend an address by Pope Francis to a joint meeting of Congress in the House chamber of the Capitol, September 24, 2015. Francis is the first pope to ever address Congress. (Photo By Tom Williams/CQ Roll Call)
U.S. Supreme Court Justice Anthony Kennedy listens to opening statements during a Financial Services and General Government Subcommittee in Washington, D.C., U.S., on Monday, March 23, 2015. Sprinting toward their spring recess, the House and Senate will separately consider budget blueprints, perhaps leading to the first joint congressional budget in six years. Photographer: Pete Marovich/Bloomberg via Getty Images
WASHINGTON, DC - JANUARY 20: U.S. Supreme Court Justices (L-R) John G. Roberts, Anthony M. Kennedy, Ruth Bader Ginsburg, Stephen G. Breyer and Sonia Sotomayor stand before the State of the Union address by President Barack Obama on January 20, 2015 in the House Chamber of the U.S. Capitol in Washington, DC. Obama was expected to lay out a broad agenda to address income inequality, making it easier for Americans to afford college education, and child care. (Photo by Mandel Ngan-Pool/Getty Images)
U.S. Supreme Court Justices Stephen Breyer, left, and Anthony Kennedy testify during a Financial Services and General Government Subcommittee in Washington, D.C., U.S., on Monday, March 23, 2015. Sprinting toward their spring recess, the House and Senate will separately consider budget blueprints, perhaps leading to the first joint congressional budget in six years. Photographer: Pete Marovich/Bloomberg via Getty Images
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Kennedy, 81, announced on June 27 plans to retire after three decades on the court, effective on July 31.

Trump's selection will set up a confirmation showdown in the U.S. Senate, where his fellow Republicans hold a slim 51-49 majority, though with ailing Senator John McCain battling cancer in his home state of Arizona they currently can muster only 50 votes. Without Republican defections, however, Senate rules leave Democrats with scant options to block confirmation of Trump's nominee.

Trump last year appointed Neil Gorsuch, who has already become one of the most conservative justices, after Senate Republicans in 2016 refused to consider Democratic former President Barack Obama's nominee Merrick Garland to fill a vacancy left by the death of conservative Justice Antonin Scalia. As a result, Democrats have accused Republicans of stealing a Supreme Court seat. Gorsuch restored the court's conservative majority.

Democrats are certain to press Trump's latest nominee on views toward the most divisive of topics: the landmark 1973 Roe v. Wade ruling that legalized abortion nationwide, a decision some conservatives - particularly conservative Christians - have long wanted to overturn.

The new justice can be expected to cast crucial votes on other matters of national importance including gay rights, gun control, the death penalty and voting rights. The court could also be called upon to render judgment on issues of personal significance to Trump and his administration including matters arising from Special Counsel Robert Mueller's ongoing Russia-related investigation and several civil lawsuits pending against Trump.

(Reporting by Lawrence Hurley, Andrew Chung and Jeff Mason; Editing by Will Dunham)

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