By Lawrence Hurley
WASHINGTON (Reuters) – President Donald Trump was expected to nominate a conservative on Tuesday for a lifetime U.S. Supreme Court post who could help shape rulings on issues such as abortion, gun control, the death penalty and religious rights, while liberals promised a fight.
Trump made his choice between two U.S. appeals court judges, Neil Gorsuch and Thomas Hardiman, according to a source involved in the selection process. Both have strong conservative credentials and were appointed to the bench by former Republican President George W. Bush.
Trump said he would reveal his choice to replace Antonin Scalia, a leading conservative voice on the court who died last February, at the White House at 8 p.m. (0100 GMT on Wednesday).
The nomination requires Senate confirmation. Democrats, still fuming over the Republican-led Senate’s refusal to act on former President Barack Obama’s court nominee last year, girded for a fight. Some Democrats have vowed to do everything in their power to block confirmation.
The court, shorthanded for nearly a year, is ideologically split with four conservative justices and four liberals. Trump’s pick can restore its conservative majority.
“We’ll be announcing a Supreme Court justice who I think everybody’s going to be impressed with,” Trump told reporters at a cyber security event in the White House.
CNN, citing an unnamed source, said Gorsuch, 49, a judge on the Denver-based 10th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals, had been told he was the likely nominee. If chosen, Gorsuch would be the youngest U.S. Supreme Court nominee since Republican President George H.W. Bush in 1991 selected Clarence Thomas, who was 43 at the time.
Hardiman serves on the Philadelphia-based 3rd U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals.
A senior Senate Republican aide said Majority Leader Mitch McConnell had already been informed of Trump’s pick, which the senator described as an “outstanding choice.”
Amid partisan tension since Trump took office on Jan. 20, Democrats remain enraged because McConnell refused last year to allow the Senate to consider Obama’s nomination of Judge Merrick Garland for the vacant seat. That action had little precedent in U.S. history.
Gambling that Republicans would win the presidency in the Nov. 8 election, McConnell argued that Obama’s successor should get to make the pick. The move paid off with Trump’s victory, but the court has run shorthanded for nearly a full year.
Adding an element of drama to the announcement, both Gorsuch and Hardiman were brought to Washington ahead of the announcement, according to media reports.
William Pryor, a judge on the Atlanta-based 11th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals, had earlier been mentioned as a possible nominee.
A Supreme Court justice can have influence for decades after the president who made the appointment has left office. Trump’s appointee could be instrumental in cases involving abortion, gun, religious and transgender rights, the death penalty, presidential powers, environmental regulation and other contentious matters.
Advocacy groups geared up for a fight.
Judicial Crisis Network, a conservative legal advocacy group, said it would launch the first part of a $10 million media advertisement campaign on Tuesday night in favor of Trump’s pick. The effort will hold Senate Democrats who face election in 2018 “accountable for their choice” on the Supreme Court, the group said.
Liberal groups including People For the American Way and abortion rights advocate NARAL Pro-Choice America planned a nighttime rally in opposition to Trump’s nominee outside the Supreme Court after the announcement.
“Senate Democrats are one of the last remaining checks on Trump’s power and they should not let him make a lifetime Supreme Court appointment,” the Friends of the Earth environmental group said.
Some Democrats said they would give Trump’s pick the fair hearing that Republican denied Garland.
“I will give President Trump’s nominee careful consideration on the basis of his or her record and a rigorous review of whether the nominee will defend the Constitution, equal rights, civil liberties, and the rule of law,” said Senator Chris Coons, a member of the Senate Judiciary Committee that will hold confirmation hearings.
Some Democrats have threatened to pursue a procedural hurdle called a filibuster, meaning 60 votes would be needed in the 100-seat Senate unless its long-standing rules are changed. Trump’s fellow Republicans hold a 52-48 majority, meaning some Democratic votes would be needed to confirm his pick.
Trump said last week he would favor Senate Republicans eliminating the filibuster, a change dubbed the “nuclear option,” for Supreme Court nominees if Democrats block his pick.
White House spokesman Sean Spicer said polls had shown that the composition of the Supreme Court was important for many voters in the Nov. 8 presidential election in which Trump defeated Democrat Hillary Clinton.
The leading candidates have conservative records.
Gorsuch joined an opinion in 2013 saying that owners of private companies could object on religious grounds to a provision of the Obamacare health insurance law requiring employers to provide coverage for birth control for women.
Hardiman, 51, has embraced a broad interpretation of the constitutional guarantee of the right to bear arms and has backed the right of schools to restrict student speech.
Pryor, 54, has been an outspoken critic of the court’s 1973 landmark Roe v. Wade ruling legalizing abortion, calling it “the worst abomination of constitutional law in our history.”