RACHEL MARTIN, HOST:
It will be one of the most consequential decisions President Trump makes during his time in the White House, and he will announce it tonight. Who will he name to fill Justice Anthony Kennedy's spot on the U.S. Supreme Court? It'll likely be a name on the list that President Trump compiled while he was campaigning for the presidency, which has already been vetted by conservative groups. A conservative will tip the balance of the court for the first time in decades, and that puts Democrats in a bind. They must defend 10 seats in the Senate in states that President Trump won. A handful of senators are in a particularly tough spot - vote against the nominee and alienate moderate votes they'll need to win re-election or confirm the nominee and weaken democratic unity. Senator Patrick Leahy is a longtime member of the Senate Judiciary Committee. He is a Democrat from Vermont. And he joins us now.
Thank you so much for being with us, Senator Leahy.
PATRICK LEAHY: Happy to be with you.
MARTIN: I think it's fair to say Republicans are pretty much thrilled about the potential nominees. I want to play a little clip of Senator Lindsey Graham here. He's speaking Sunday on Fox.
(SOUNDBITE OF TV SHOW, "FOX NEWS SUNDAY")
LINDSEY GRAHAM: Republicans are holding four lottery tickets, and all of them are winners.
MARTIN: Senator Leahy, could you see yourself supporting any of the four nominees President Trump is said to be considering?
LEAHY: Well, let's see who he nominates. I am concerned that he's making it like a game show. I will - as he's out playing golf - I'm thinking of this person; I'm thinking of that person - but I will announce it on prime-time TV at the White House. This - whoever is nominated, whoever he or she is, if they're confirmed, they're going to be there for a long time. This is not a game show. It's not an arm of the White House. And I've been here with Supreme Court justices from the time of President Ford straight on to President Trump. The same advice I've given to every single president is, think of this not as a political thing, but what is this for the ages? I worry very much that President Trump, because he's been told to do this by the Federalist Society and others - are trying to make the courts an arm of the White House.
MARTIN: Although the four people who are on the short list are said to be people who would be potentially nominated by any Republican nominee. They've been vetted by conservative groups.
LEAHY: No. No. They've been OK'd by conservative groups, by lobbying groups who have said, here are the people you are allowed to pick from. That does not give a lot of people a thought that we're going to have an independent Supreme Court. I mean, I've argued cases in courts - state courts, federal courts, others. I've always gone in there assuming that the judge - he's going to make up their mind based on the facts and what they hear, not based on a political litmus test requires.
MARTIN: And you think that's happening now. What's the litmus test?
LEAHY: Well, I think the litmus test is what the president said. He said, even during his campaign, and then he did it to a great success with his base - I will take the names from this list that's given to me by a conservative Republican group, even if it might exclude a great part of the American population, even though the Supreme Court is there for everybody, I will pick based on a small political group.
MARTIN: Well, let me ask you, Senator - you say you're going to wait to see who the president taps. But we know the list of names. Four top nominees - Raymond Kethledge, Brett Kavanaugh, Amy Coney Barrett, Thomas Hardiman. Is there one of those four you could support, or do you think Democrats should unite and oppose whomever the president taps?
LEAHY: I would hope that Democrats listen to the hearings and have an open mind to them. I have. I did this when I - and I voted for a lot of Republican nominees. And I voted against some based on what I heard in the hearings.
MARTIN: Does - that means that you would not support an all-out Democratic ban of the nominee.
LEAHY: I think that we have to see who the nominee is and ask questions. Remember; we don't want to do what the Republicans did. They took Merrick Garland, a man that everybody from Orrin Hatch on through said would be a great member of the Supreme Court until Mitch McConnell said, no, you can't like him; we're going to disobey the Constitution; we're going to ignore our oath of office, and we're not even going to allow an advice and consent vote on it. Once that happened, I think that the Supreme Court was diminished for decades to come.
MARTIN: Just briefly, your fellow Democratic senators - Heidi Heitkamp, Joe Manchin, Joe Donnelly - all people who do not support the mainstream Democratic view on abortion - all three are up for re-election in red states. Is there a chance they might break ranks and vote for the nominee?
LEAHY: Every senator has to determine what he or she wants to do. That's what I've done for 40 years in the Senate. That's what every senator has to do.
MARTIN: Senator Patrick Leahy, Democrat of Vermont, thanks so much for your time this morning.
LEAHY: Good talking with you. Thank you. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.