Justice Scalia: The Charm Offensive

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Though he bravely overcame his illness to deliver the presidential oath of office at last week's Inaugural, most court watchers assume that Chief Justice William Rehnquist's cancer will soon force him to retire from the Supreme Court. Which means the guessing game is in full swing over which of the court's sitting Justices is most likely to replace him. If he does not go outside for the job, President Bush will probably choose one of the court's two most stalwart conservatives, Antonin Scalia and Clarence Thomas. Scalia seems to have the edge. "The idea of appointing the first African-American Chief Justice has undeniable appeal to the President," says a top Republican who informally advises the White House on judicial nominations. "But there'd be a huge fight over Thomas, and the President doesn't need a fight." Though Scalia's conservatism irks many Democrats, he was confirmed easily by the Senate in 1986, and would probably be confirmed again without too much trouble.

Yet Scalia does not have a lock on the job. According to several sources familiar with White House thinking on judicial nominations, the President and his advisers are worried that the tart-tongued Justice may not have the people skills to manage the court, build consensus among its nine members and represent the institution in public. That may explain why the famously dyspeptic Scalia has become a merry mainstay on the A-list Washington social circuit of late. At parties ranging from a charity dinner at the Kuwaiti embassy two weeks ago to an Inaugural lunch at D.C.'s chic Cafe Milano, guests have been surprised to find the once reclusive Scalia mixing with the city's power brokers, making small talk and telling jokes. "Lately, I've been running into Nino everywhere," says a friend and fellow lawyer. "He's showing that he actually can be charming and gregarious. It's a sign that he's really interested in the job."