WASHINGTON (REUTERS) - President Donald Trump said he will announce his nominee to the US Supreme Court on Tuesday as he looks to quickly put his stamp on the court by restoring its conservative majority.
Trump said on Monday that he will unveil at the White House at 8pm on Tuesday (9am Singapore time on Wednesday) his pick to fill the lingering vacancy on the nation's highest court left by the death of conservative Justice Antonin Scalia in February 2016.
Trump told reporters at the White House he would name "a person who is unbelievably highly respected. And I think you will be very impressed with this person". Mr Trump previously had said he would make the appointment on Thursday.
Three US appeals court judges appointed to the bench by Republican former President George W Bush were among those under close consideration. They are: Neil Gorsuch, a judge on the Denver-based 10th US Circuit Court of Appeals; Thomas Hardiman, who serves on the Philadelphia-based 3rd US Circuit Court of Appeals; and William Pryor, a judge on the Atlanta-based 11th US Circuit Court of Appeals.
Since Scalia's death, the Supreme Court has been ideologically split with four conservatives and four liberals on the bench. Another conservative justice could be pivotal in cases involving abortion, gun, religious and transgender rights, the death penalty and other contentious matters.
Trump's appointee to the lifetime post could face stiff opposition from Democrats in the Republican-led US Senate, which must confirm nominees to the nation's highest court.
Democrats remain furious over Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell's refusal last year to allow the Senate to consider Democratic President Barack Obama's nomination of appeals court Judge Merrick Garland for the vacant seat, an action with little precedent in US history.
Trump, who took office on Jan 20, said last week that evangelical Christians "will love my pick". Gorsuch, Hardiman and Pryor all possess strong conservative credentials.
Gorsuch joined an opinion in 2013 saying that owners of private companies can object on religious grounds to a provision of the Obamacare health insurance law requiring employers to provide coverage for birth control for women.
Gorsuch's mother headed the Environmental Protection Agency under Republican President Ronald Reagan before quitting under pressure in 1983.
Hardiman has embraced a broad interpretation of the US Constitution's right to bear arms and has backed the right of schools to restrict student speech. Gun rights activists are eager for the Supreme Court to expand on a 2008 ruling that found for the first time that there is an individual right to bear arms for self-defence in the home.
Pryor has been an outspoken critic of the court's 1973 landmark Roe vs Wade ruling legalising abortion, calling it "the worst abomination of constitutional law in our history". Conservatives are hoping the high court will back restrictions imposed on the procedure by some Republican-governed states.
Last year, the Supreme Court issued its strongest endorsement of abortion rights in more than two decades, striking down a Texas abortion law imposing strict regulations on doctors and facilities in a 5-3 ruling.
Conservative Justice Anthony Kennedy joined the court's four liberals in that ruling. That means that it may take more than one Trump appointee to change the court's approach in abortion rulings. But Trump may get more than one appointment to the court, with three justices 78 or older: liberals Ruth Bader Ginsburg (83) and Stephen Breyer (78), as well as Kennedy (80).
Some conservatives have raised questions about Pryor's role as Alabama attorney general in removing the state's then-chief justice, Roy Moore, from office in 2003 over Moore's refusal to remove a monument celebrating the biblical Ten Commandments from the state's Supreme Court building.
Pryor also joined a 2011 ruling favouring a transgender woman who said she was fired when she transitioned from male to female. The Supreme Court during its current term is due to decide a major transgender rights case for the first time. The justices have not yet heard arguments in the case, in which a Virginia public school district is fighting to prevent a female-born transgender high school student from using the boys' bathroom.
Trump's fellow Republicans hold a 52-48 majority in the Senate. Democrats, however, could use procedural hurdles to try to block the nomination.
Trump said last week he would favour Senate Republicans changing long-standing voting rules to allow a simple majority of the 100-seat Senate to confirm his nominee, eliminating the need to gather 60 votes to overcome a procedure hurdle, or filibuster. This approach has been dubbed the "nuclear option". Senate Democratic leader Chuck Schumer has said it is hard to imagine Trump picking a nominee who Democrats could support, and said he would "absolutely" fight to keep the seat vacant rather than let the Senate confirm a nominee deemed to be outside the mainstream.