Pres­i­dent Obama and his advisers have begun the process of finding a can­di­date to fill retiring Jus­tice David H. Souter’s seat on the U.S. Supreme Court. According to recent reports, Obama is looking for someone with real-​​world expe­ri­ence, whose resume dif­fers from the other jus­tices’ appel­late court back­grounds. North­eastern law pro­fessor Michael Melt­sner, who teaches con­sti­tu­tional law and has argued six times before the Supreme Court of the United States, shares his insight into the type of person Obama’s team may be considering.

Overall, what should Pres­i­dent Obama be looking for in a new U.S. Supreme Court justice?

It’s easy to tick off the traits—a sense of the insti­tu­tion and knowl­edge of the law, col­le­gial skills, sound judg­ment, someone who’ll get con­firmed without undue con­flict, aware­ness of how the law in prac­tice affects ordi­nary people—but dif­fi­cult to be con­fi­dent that any nom­inee com­bines them in the proper pro­por­tion. If the selec­tion isn’t driven by par­tisan con­sid­er­a­tions, choosing the best can­di­date is quite a challenge.

All of the cur­rent nine jus­tices were judges prior to their appoint­ment to the Supreme Court. Should Pres­i­dent Obama be looking for an aca­d­emic or an elected official?

Pre­vious judi­cial expe­ri­ence is over­rated as a con­sid­er­a­tion. The Supreme Court makes policy, though it doesn’t admit it, and breadth of expe­ri­ence and intel­lect is more impor­tant than having served on a lower court.

All but one of the cur­rent jus­tices went to Har­vard or Yale. Do you think that we need more edu­ca­tional diver­sity in future appointees?

I grad­u­ated from Yale and have taught at Har­vard so have great respect for both, but the law school a jus­tice attended years ago has little to do with the ulti­mate quality of his or her work on the court. Earl Warren attended Berkeley; John Mar­shall studied at William and Mary and read law pri­vately; Thur­good Mar­shall went to Howard.

Pres­i­dent Obama used to teach con­sti­tu­tional law. Will that impact his deci­sion? How? Why?

I think it must inform his views on the role of the court, but I doubt that he’ll look for a pro­fes­so­rial type—though he may choose someone with aca­d­emic expe­ri­ence. Too much of a ten­dency for scholastic rea­soning in a judge, any judge, is a recipe for medi­oc­rity. Scholastic rea­soning turns the subtle into the dull and pedantic. Pres­i­dent Obama has said very clearly he doesn’t want that sort of a justice.

How impor­tant is it for Pres­i­dent Obama to choose a female Supreme Court jus­tice nom­inee? A minority?

It’s obvious that the court needs to look more like the country whose laws it interprets.

How do you think legal his­to­rians will eval­uate Jus­tice Souter’s tenure on the Supreme Court?

His rep­u­ta­tion will soar because he was inde­pen­dent, thoughtful and humane. This in itself, on a court with sev­eral ide­o­log­i­cally driven mem­bers, is note­worthy. Some of us miss him already.