The withdrawal of Mr Mitchell, 61, the front-runner since Justice Harry Blackmun, 85, announced his retirement last week, came as a complete shock in Washington. Although there have been some small questions about the constitutionality of such a change of job while Congress was in session, it had been assumed these would be overcome, and he would be offered the job.
So much was confirmed by the senior senator from Maine, the most powerful Democrat on Capitol Hill. At a private White House meeting on Monday, Mr Mitchell said: 'The President said he wanted to appoint me to the Court, and intended to appoint me.'
But if Mr Mitchell's account is taken at face value, he turned the offer down in the belief that his formidable negotiating and legislative skills would be best used in Congress, where he will play a vital role if a health-care reform package - not to mention other key bills on crime, welfare reform and campaign-finance reform - are to be approved before his retirement and this autumn's mid-term elections.
His withdrawal puts Mr Clinton's quest for a new justice back close to square one. Another favoured contender, the Interior Secretary, Bruce Babbitt, has already taken himself out of consideration. The names most frequently mentioned are the Connecticut federal judge Jose Cabranes, who would be the first Hispanic to sit on the high court, and Boston appeals court judge Stephen Breyer. Judge Breyer just lost narrowly when Mr Clinton filled his first Supreme Court vacancy with Ruth Bader Ginsburg.
Certain of swift confirmation by his Senate peers, Mr Mitchell could have been just the appointment to lift Mr Clinton's precarious political fortunes. But he did not rule out a move to the Court if another vacancy emerged under the Clinton presidency.
Indeed, many believe his wily eye is on the top job of Chief Justice, currently held by Nixon appointee William Rehnquist, whose retirement has been intermittently rumoured. However, it would be more logical for Mr Rehnquist, a staunch conservative, to delay his departure in the hope a Republican recaptures the White House in 1996.
Mr Mitchell's name had been also linked with another vital job in national life, that of Major League Baseball's commissioner. But yesterday official Washington's most passionate Boston Red Sox fan was dismissing any such speculation.Reuse content