The increase in chatter in Washington about Justice Souter’s replacement is a clear signal that pundits have gotten about as much mileage as they can over speculation and want to have an actual nominee to dissect.
Even though the administration has been evaluating candidates since the inauguration (and before), there’s no real reason for President Obama to announce a replacement before the Court’s term ends in late June.
The only limiting factor is that the president needs to have a new justice in place by the time the Court resumes hearing cases in October. So, clearly, this politically savvy president will be weighing his legislative priorities against the relative amount of political capital he’ll have to spend to confirm possible nominees. Similarly, Republicans seem to be keeping their powder dry, hopefully in preparation for a serious public debate of competing judicial philosophies and theories of constitutional interpretation.
As far as handicapping goes, the smart money is now on Solicitor General Elena Kagan—because she was recently confirmed by a comfortable margin, has significant support in the conservative legal establishment, and is young (49)—but don’t count out either Judge Diane Wood or Judge Sonia Sotomayor. Or dark horse candidates like Senator Claire McCaskill. It’s really any woman’s ballgame at this point, and will be until Barack Obama—who famously holds his cards close to his vest—announces his pick, on his time.
For a geometric discussion (X-axis = desirable criteria; Y-axis = confirmability) of the above political calculus, see here.