WASHINGTON — Joan Larsen's phone was suddenly abuzz. At first, the Michigan Supreme Court justice thought something bad must have happened. But then she realized it was just that Donald Trump, then the GOP's 2016 presidential candidate, had added her name to a list of people he would consider for a seat on the nation's highest court.
"She was stunned to see the sheer crushing volume of texts and emails," recalled longtime friend and University of Michigan Law School colleague Sarah C. Zearfoss. "It took her awhile to absorb the cause — the first thought was that something was terribly wrong in her family."
Thus began life on The List — the longest and most public collection of potential presidential Supreme Court nominees in history. Trump says he'll choose from among the 25 candidates on the list on Monday to replace retiring Justice Anthony Kennedy.
After that, 24 of them will remain on what will be the not-quite-it list — a collection of administration-approved conservatives designed by the Federalist Society to appeal to Trump's all-important base of supporters. What the Trump two dozen get in return involves a measure of prestige and also something of a pain. It means having every word flyspecked indefinitely, with friends and family along for the bizarre public ride. Every name on there is subject to the volatile president's whimsy, often with no advance notice. And there's the threat of being always a bridesmaid, perennially on display but never chosen.
Here's what Trump's guidance looked like on Thursday.
"I think I have it down to four people and I think of the four people, I have it down to three or two. I think they're all outstanding. Honestly I could pick any of the 25 and they would be terrific," Trump told reporters. "Those are very terrific people. The whole list is extraordinary."
So is the experience of being on it, particularly for those jurists not accustomed to the searing Trumpian spotlight.
Take it from Justice Neil Gorsuch, an alumnus of Trump's list confirmed to fill the seat of the late Justice Antonin Scalia. In 2016, Gorsuch was a Colorado jurist who tried "to live under a shell during the campaign season, watch baseball and football. Go about my business," as he told the Senate Judiciary Committee during his confirmation hearing last year.
Gorsuch described a friend letting him know over breakfast that Gorsuch was not included on Trump's list.
"He said, 'Neil, you're not on the list. And I said, 'You're right, I'm not on the list,'" Gorsuch recalled. But then, walking away from the meal, Gorsuch said he got an email from the same breakfast mate.
"'There's a new list. And you're on it,'" Gorsuch recalled the email saying. "That was the first I heard of it."
For Larsen, being on the list caused more than a surprise. After Trump narrowly carried Michigan, Larsen recused herself from matters relating to Green Party candidate Jill Stein's request for a recount. Larsen said she stepped aside even though she hadn't asked to be on Trump's list, had no prior notice that he had chosen her and had no contact with Trump or his campaign.
"I concluded that my appearance on the list and the then-president-elect's presence as a party in the cases created an appearance of a conflict requiring my disqualification," Larsen later wrote.
Members of the federal judiciary are grown-ups with hefty credentials who know they are public figures and worked hard to get there. Many see being considered for the Supreme Court as an honor in itself, the confirmation gauntlet of senator meetings and packed hearings a hardship worth enduring for the lifelong job at the apex of the American justice system.
But the pre-nomination phase — the one that has Trump's 25 dangling in public until at least Monday — has until this president been a different, more private kind of challenge.
Justice Clarence Thomas wrote in his 2007 memoir that his journey to the high court included being escorted through a tunnel to a windowless office, where he was left to himself for a few hours before his interview with President George H.W. Bush. Thomas then spent a few days not knowing. He remembers hoping Bush had settled on the other guy, Judge Emilio Garza of the Fifth Circuit Court of Appeals, to fill Thurgood Marshall's seat on the high court.
"Better him than me," Thomas recalled thinking.
What's new is the public, Trump-era purgatory. For all the prestige the Trump 25 might confer, being so named can be jolting to the introverts and scholars on the list.
Raymond Kethledge, a former Kennedy law clerk and appeals court judge from Michigan, is thought to be a leading contender. He also co-authored a book on the glories of solitude and its critical role in leadership. He describes himself as an introvert.
Kethledge was writing the book in his barn office overlooking Lake Huron, without an internet connection, when his wife called the land line from her treadmill at the gym.
"She said, 'I just saw you on TV! You're on the list!'" Kethledge said in an interview with Above the Law, a legal website. "That was how I heard the news. It was distracting."
Judge Ralph B. Guy Jr. wished his former law clerk luck when he learned Kethledge was on Trump's list.
But he also had some advice: "Make sure you want it," Guy said he told Kethledge of a Supreme Court nomination, "because you have a very fine job right now."