WASHINGTON -- In a marked departure from his recent predecessors, President Clinton appears to be far more involved in the selection of a new Supreme Court justice and is relying less heavily on the choices of White House aides.
White House officials say Mr. Clinton, a former law professor and attorney general in Arkansas, is largely thinking about candidates on his own, working from his years of building acquaintances with judges and politicians. Aides say he has also been considering several people he approached to become attorney general.
Among the candidates whose names have been mentioned are Gov. Mario M. Cuomo of New York; Judge Judith Kaye, who last month became the chief judge of New York's highest state court; and Judge Patricia Wald, who sits on the U.S. Court of Appeals in Washington.
Mr. Clinton is looking for a progressive on social policy, civil rights and privacy issues. He has a strong preference for someone who would be able to forge coalitions in a fractured and changing court, a conciliator along the lines of former Associate Justice William J. Brennan Jr.
And he specifically does not want to select a liberal version of Justice Antonin Scalia, who has staked out constitutional positions so extreme that he is often a lone voice.
So far, Mr. Clinton has been making calls to friends and advisers about whom to appoint. He has also been ordering his legal staff to provide him with background material, including opinions, writings and speeches, on several possible candidates. He has apparently not interviewed anyone yet.
Presidents Ronald Reagan and George Bush, who made six appointments to the nine-person bench, played a much more passive role in their selections and relied heavily on the recommendations of their senior advisers.
In contrast, Mr. Clinton has long showed a strong intellectual interest in the court and its workings. One of his first visits in Washington after being elected was to the court, where the same charm that he used effectively to woo voters apparently worked on several justices, who came away impressed with the new president.
Two weeks ago, Justice Byron R. White said he would retire in early summer after 31 years on the court. Mr. Clinton has moved slowly and cautiously in selecting the first Democratic appointment to the High Court since Thurgood Marshall was chosen by President Lyndon B. Johnson in 1967.
In part, the selection by the president has been delayed because Hillary Rodham Clinton has been preoccupied by the emerging health package that she has been formulating and by the declining health of her father, who suffered a stroke last month.
Mrs. Clinton, who has a wide circle of friends who are judges and lawyers, played a leading role in picking Arkansas judges as well as the attorney general. She is expected to be important in the search for Supreme Court nominees.
The White House has decided to wait until at least May or June at the earliest to announce its choice to succeed Justice White on the theory that a replacement is not needed before the court reconvenes in October.
It also calculates that politically it would be better to keep short the amount of time between nomination and confirmation to reduce the likelihood of a campaign to block confirmation.
Finally, there is strong speculation that another justice may soon retire, which could permit Mr. Clinton to fulfill his pledge to promote more women and minorities to the court as well as to justify the selection of a white male.
Three weeks ago, Justice Harry A. Blackmun said in a speech in Boston that he did not think he would remain on the court much longer and that he did not want to be asked to retire. Justice Blackmun, 84, is second in seniority to Justice White.
There is strong speculation among lawyers and court watchers that Justice John Paul Stevens, who turns 73 this month, will also retire in the next few years.