Obama nominates Garland to high court, challenging GOP

Federal appeals court judge Merrick Garland, right, stands with President Barack Obama and Vice President Joe Biden as he is introduced as Obama's nominee for the Supreme Court during an announcement in the Rose Garden of the White House, in Washington, Wednesday, March 16, 2016. (AP Photo/Pablo Martinez Monsivais)

WASHINGTON (AP) — President Barack Obama nominated appeals court judge Merrick Garland to the Supreme Court on Wednesday, challenging Republicans to drop their adamant refusal to even consider his choice in an election year.

Obama called Garland, a long-time jurist and former prosecutor, “one of America’s sharpest legal minds” and deserving of a full hearing and Senate confirmation vote. Republican leaders, however, have said the vacant high court seat should not be filled until a new president is elected, a stance Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell emphasized immediately after the White House announcement.

FILE - In this May 1, 2008, file photo, Judge Merrick B. Garland is seen at the federal courthouse in Washington. President Obama is expected to nominate Merrick Garland to the Supreme Court. (AP Photo/Charles Dharapak, File)
FILE – In this May 1, 2008, file photo, Judge Merrick B. Garland is seen at the federal courthouse in Washington. President Obama is expected to nominate Merrick Garland to the Supreme Court. (AP Photo/Charles Dharapak, File)

Garland, 63, is the chief judge for the United States Court of Appeals for the District of Columbia Circuit, a court whose influence over federal policy and national security matters has made it a proving ground for potential Supreme Court justices.

He would replace conservative, Justice Antonin Scalia, who died last month, leaving behind a bitter election-year fight over the future of the court.

Obama announced choice at a ceremony in the Rose Garden, with Democratic Senate leaders and allies looking on.

Garland, who had been passed over before, choked back tears, calling the nomination “the greatest honor of my life.” He described his grandparents’ flight from anti-Semitism in Eastern Europe and his modest upbringing.

He said he viewed a judge’s job as a mandate to set aside personal preferences to “follow the law, not make it.”

Obama held up Garland as diligent public servant, highlighting his work leading the investigation into the Oklahoma City bombing and prosecutions. He quoted past praise for Garland from Chief Justice John Roberts and Sen. Orrin Hatch. And he said Garland’s talent for bringing together “odd couples” made him a consensus candidate best poised to become an immediate force on the nation’s highest court.

The president urged the Republican-led Senate not to let the particularly fierce and partisan political climate quash the nomination of a “serious man.”

“This is precisely the time when we should play it straight,” Obama said.  “It’s supposed to be above politics,it has to be. And it should stay that way.”

Republican leaders, however, held to their refusal to consider any nominee, saying the seat should be filled by the next president after this year’s election. Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell spoke with Garland by phone but did not change his position that “the American people will have a voice.” He said he would not be holding “a perfunctory meeting but he wished Judge Garland well,” a spokesman said.

Others in the GOP ranks were less wedded to the no-hearing, no-vote, not-even-a-meeting stance — a sign that Republicans are aware the strategy could leave them branded as obstructionist.

Unlike McConnell, Senate Judiciary Committee Chairman Charles Grassley said he is open to meeting with Garland in the coming weeks, as did five other Republican senators — Rob Portman of Ohio, Jeff Flake of Arizona, Susan Collins of Maine, James Inhofe of Oklahoma and Kelly Ayotte of New Hampshire. Others vowed to give his record a close look. The judge will begin visiting with Democratic senators on Thursday at the Capitol, before the Senate breaks for a two-week recess.

Scheduling courtesy meetings is a long way from securing a full hearing, much less winning the 60 votes needed for confirmation. Still, the White House seized the comments as evidence Garland’s weighty resume and bipartisan credentials were putting pressure on Republicans.

Garland was confirmed to the D.C. Circuit in 1997 with backing from a majority in both parties, including seven current Republicans senators.

If confirmed, Garland would be expected to align with the more liberal members, but he is not viewed as down-the-line liberal. Particularly on criminal defense and national security cases, he’s earned a reputation as centrist, and one of the few Democratic-appointed judges Republicans might have a fast-tracked to confirmation — under other circumstances.

In the current climate, Garland remains a tough sell. Republicans control the Senate, which must confirm any nominee, and GOP leaders want to leave the choice to the next president, denying Obama a chance to alter the ideological balance of the court before he leaves office next January. Republicans contend that a confirmation fight in an election year would be too politicized.

Republicans have set up a task force that will orchestrate attack ads, petitions and media outreach. On the other side, Obama allies are to run a Democratic effort targeting states where Republicans might feel political heat for opposing hearings.

Obama’s choice risks deflating some of the energy among the Democratic base. Progressives and civil rights activists had pushed the president to name an African-American woman or to otherwise continue his efforts to expand the court’s diversity.

Garland — a white, male jurist with an Ivy League pedigree and career spent largely in the upper echelon of Washington’s legal elite — breaks no barriers. At 63 years old, he would be the oldest Supreme Court nominee since Lewis Powell, who was 64 when he was confirmed in 1971.

Presidents tend to appoint young judges with the hope they will shape the court’s direction for as long as possible.

Those factors had, until now, made Garland something of a perpetual bridesmaid, repeatedly on Obama’s Supreme Court lists but never chosen.

But he is finding his moment at a time when Democrats are seeking to apply maximum pressure on Republicans. A key part of their strategy is casting Republicans as obstructionists ready to shoot down a nominee that many in their own ranks once considered a consensus candidate. In 2010, Hatch called Garland “terrific” and said he could be confirmed “virtually unanimously.”

A native of Chicago and graduate of Harvard College and Harvard Law School, Garland clerked for two appointees of Republican President Dwight D. Eisenhower — the liberal U.S. Supreme Court Justice William Brennan Jr. and Judge Henry J. Friendly, for whom Roberts also clerked.

In 1988, he gave up a partner’s office in a powerhouse law firms to cut his teeth in criminal cases. As an assistant U.S. attorney, he joined the team prosecuting a Reagan White House aide charged with illegal lobbying and did early work on the drug case against then-D.C. Mayor Marion Barry. He held a top-ranking post in the Justice Department when he was dispatched to Oklahoma City the day after the bombing at the federal courthouse to supervise the investigation. The case made his reputation. He oversaw the convictions of Timothy McVeigh and Terry Nichols, and later supervised the investigation into Unabomber Ted Kaczynski.

President Bill Clinton first nominated him to the D.C. Circuit in 1995.

His prolonged confirmation process then may have prepared him for the one ahead. Garland waited 2½ years to win confirmation to the appeals court. Then, as now, one of the men blocking his path was Iowa Sen. Charles Grassley, who argued he had no quarrel with Garland’s credentials but a beef with the notion of a Democratic president trying to fill a court Grassley felt had too many seats.

Grassley ultimately relented, although he was not one of the 32 Republicans who voted in favor of Garland’s confirmation. Nor was Sen. Mitch McConnell, the other major hurdle for Garland now. The Republicans who voted in favor of confirmation are Hatch, Sen. Dan Coats, Sen. Thad Cochran, Sen. Susan Collins, Sen. Jim Inhofe, Sen. John McCain, and Sen. Pat Roberts.

U.S. Senator Pat Roberts released the following statement:

“By nominating a replacement for Justice Scalia, President Obama is attempting to deny the American people a voice on the next Supreme Court justice. The next justice will have an effect on the courts for decades to come and should not be rushed through by a lame-duck president during an election year. This is not about the nominee, it is about giving the American people and the next president a role in selecting the next Supreme Court justice.”

Rep. Mike Pompeo released the following statement:

 

“The next Supreme Court justice could dramatically alter the direction of the court and have a profound impact on our country.  This has never been about the person, but it is about a basic principle: Kansans and Americans should have a voice in determining the future direction of the court and our country.  Instead of spending time on this issue that we cannot agree on, we should focus on the issues where we can, like keeping America safe and empowering our economy.”

Background on Judge Merrick Garland

In a Rose Garden ceremony today at the White House, President Obama announced his intent to nominate Merrick Garland to the Supreme Court of the United States. Merrick Garland, the Chief Judge of the U.S. Court of Appeals for the D.C. Circuit, has more federal judicial experience than any other Supreme Court nominee in history. No one is better suited to immediately serve on the Supreme Court.

Throughout his career, Chief Judge Garland has shown a rare ability to bring people together and has earned the respect of everyone he has worked with. Chief Justice John Roberts, Garland’s colleague on the D.C. Circuit, once said that “anytime Judge Garland disagrees, you know you’re in a difficult area.” In 2010, as the Senate was beginning the process of confirming a successor to Justice John Paul Stevens, Senator Orrin Hatch said he saw Chief Judge Garland as “a consensus nominee” for the Supreme Court, adding “I have no doubts that Garland would get a lot of [Senate] votes. And I will do my best to help him get them.”

Chief Judge Garland was confirmed to the D.C. Circuit 76-23, with majority support from both Republicans and Democrats. He has served for 19 years on that court – often considered the most important appellate court in the nation. For over 3 years, he has been the Chief Judge of the D.C. Circuit, continuing to distinguish himself as one of the most impressive judges in the country. He has cultivated a reputation as a brilliant, meticulous judge with a knack for building consensus, playing it straight, and deciding every case based on what the law requires. As he has said, “The role of the court is to apply the law to the facts of the case before it—not to legislate, not to arrogate to itself the executive power, not to hand down advisory opinions on the issues of the day.”

Chief Judge Garland was born and raised in Illinois, by a mother who served as a community volunteer and a father who ran a small business out of the family home. His grandparents immigrated to the United States to escape persecution and find a better life. He won scholarships to attend Harvard University – where he graduated summa cum laude – and Harvard Law School, paying his way by taking a summer job as a shoe store stock clerk, selling his comic book collection and counseling undergraduates.

Chief Judge Garland began his career as a clerk for legendary Second Circuit Judge Henry Friendly and then Supreme Court Justice William Brennan. In just four years, Chief Judge Garland became a partner at a prominent law firm, with a practice focused on litigation and pro bono representation of disadvantaged Americans.

Throughout his career, Chief Judge Garland has demonstrated a commitment to putting his country first. In 1989, shortly after becoming a partner in private practice, Chief Judge Garland accepted a significant pay cut to became a federal prosecutor for the U.S. Attorney’s Office for D.C. under the Administration of President George H.W. Bush, where he investigated and prosecuted cases involving public corruption, drug trafficking and fraud. U.S. Attorney Jay Stephens, a Republican appointee, later described Garland’s service to that office as marked “by dedication, sound judgment, excellent legal ability, a balanced temperament, and the highest ethical and professional standards.”

He later was selected as the Deputy Assistant Attorney General for the Criminal Division at the Department of Justice, and then as Principal Associate Deputy Attorney General. In these roles, he oversaw some of the most important federal criminal cases brought by the Department.

Chief Judge Garland’s work on the Oklahoma City bombing case was particularly notable and inspiring. In the wake of the bombing, he traveled to Oklahoma to oversee the case, and in the ensuing months coordinated every aspect of the government’s response – working with federal agents, rescue workers, local officials, and others to bring the perpetrators to justice. He also kept in close touch with victims and their families throughout the case, and for several years afterwards as well. Later, former Oklahoma Governor Frank Keating, a Republican, wrote that, during his work on the Oklahoma City bombing case, Chief Judge Garland “distinguished himself in a situation where he had to lead a highly complicated investigation and make quick decisions during critical times.”

Chief Judge Garland has also devoted himself to being a mentor and teacher. He remains close with his law clerks throughout their careers, encouraging them to pursue public service and advising them on how best to do so. In addition, for almost twenty years, he has tutored second, third, and fourth grade students in Northeast DC in reading and math. Chief Judge Garland and his wife of nearly thirty years, Lynn, have two daughters, Becky and Jessie. The family enjoys skiing, hiking and canoeing, and together they have visited many of America’s national parks.

Biography of Merrick Garland

Merrick Garland is the chief judge of the most important federal appeals court in the nation. In this role, he has consistently forged consensus among judges across the ideological spectrum, and he is uniquely poised to serve immediately as a Supreme Court justice.

Born and raised in Illinois by a mother who served as a community volunteer and a father who ran a small business out of the family home, Garland was valedictorian of his public high school class. He won scholarships to attend Harvard University, where he graduated summa cum laude, and Harvard Law School, where he received his law degree magna cum laude and served on the Harvard Law Review. While in college, Garland worked a summer job as a shoe store stock clerk and sold his comic book collection to help pay his tuition. As a law student, he earned room and board by counseling undergraduates.

After law school, Garland clerked for legendary Second Circuit Judge Henry Friendly. Garland then clerked for Supreme Court Justice William Brennan. Garland became a partner at a prominent law firm in just four years, with a practice focusing on litigation and pro bono representation of disadvantaged Americans. In 1989, shortly after becoming a partner, he returned to public service by accepting a job as a federal prosecutor during the George H.W. Bush Administration, investigating and trying cases involving public corruption, drug trafficking, and fraud.

He later joined the Department of Justice, first as Deputy Assistant Attorney General for the Criminal Division and then as Principal Associate Deputy Attorney General. In these roles, he oversaw some of the Department’s most significant prosecutions in the 1990s, including coordinating the government’s response to the Oklahoma City bombing. Garland moved to Oklahoma in the days following that terrorist attack, and led the investigation and prosecution that ultimately brought Timothy McVeigh to justice. He also supervised the Department’s responses to the Unabomber and the Montana Freemen.

When Garland was nominated to the D.C. Circuit, Garland received overwhelming bipartisan praise from Senators, lawyers, and commentators, and was confirmed by a vote of 76-23 in 1997. In his 19 years on the D.C. Circuit, Garland has a track record of building consensus as a thoughtful, fair-minded judge who follows the law. In his confirmation process, Chief Justice Roberts noted, “Any time Judge Garland disagrees, you know you’re in a difficult area.” Senator Orrin Hatch, the chairman of the Senate Judiciary Committee at the time of Garland’s confirmation, has said Garland would be a “consensus nominee” for the Supreme Court who “would be very well supported by all sides.” Garland became Chief Judge in 2013.

Garland and his wife of nearly 30 years, Lynn, have two daughters, Becky and Jessie. The family enjoys skiing, hiking and canoeing, and together they have visited many of America’s national parks. Garland is known for mentoring his clerks, and since 1998, has volunteered as a tutor for elementary school students in Northeast Washington, D.C.

Additional Background

Sen. Hatch: “[Obama] could easily name Merrick Garland, who is a fine man.” [NewsMax, 3/13/16]

Reuters: “Senator Orrin Hatch said he had known [Garland], seen as a leading contender for the Supreme Court, for years and that he would be ‘a consensus nominee.’” [Reuters, 5/6/10]

Sen. Leahy: “What Senators ought to be talking about is the fact that Merrick Garland is a superb nominee. He has been seen as a superb nominee by Republicans and Democrats alike, by all writers in this field. At a time when some seem to want people who are not qualified, here is a person with qualifications that are among the best I have ever seen.” [Congressional Record, 3/19/97]

Chief Justice John G. Roberts: “Any time Judge Garland disagrees, you know you’re in a difficult area. And the function of his dissent, to make us focus on what we were deciding and to make sure that we felt we were doing the right thing, I think was well-served. But Judge Garland disagreed, and so it’s obviously, to me, a case on which reasonable judges can disagree.” [Transcript: Day Three of the Roberts Confirmation Hearings, 9/14/05]

Iowa Gov. Terry Branstad: “I am writing to ask your support and assistance in the confirmation process for a second cousin… Merrick Garland has had a distinguished legal career.” [Letter from Gov. Terry Branstad to Sen. Chuck Grassley, 10/10/1995 via Congressional Record, 3/19/97]

Former Oklahoma Gov. Frank Keating: “Last April, in Oklahoma City, Merrick was at the helm of the Justice Department’s investigation following the bombing of the Oklahoma City Federal Building, the bloodiest and most tragic act of terrorism on American soil. During the investigation, Merrick distinguished himself in a situation where he had to lead a highly complicated investigation and make quick decisions during critical times. Merrick Garland is an intelligent, experienced and evenhanded individual.” [Letter from Gov. Frank Keating to Sen. Bob Dole, 2/19/1996 via Congressional Record, 3/19/97]

Ed Whelan, former Principal Deputy Assistant Attorney General for the Office of Legal Counsel in the U.S. Department of Justice and former law clerk to Supreme Court Justice Antonin Scalia: “He’s earned the respect of a range of folks, including conservatives, and I think he is the most likely to exercise judicial restraint.” [Washington Post, 4/23/10]

Charles J. Cooper, Assistant AG for the Office Of Legal Counsel in the Reagan Administration: “Not only is Merrick enormously gifted intellectually, but he is thoughtful as well, for he respects other points of view and fairly and honestly assesses the merits of all sides of an issue. And he has a stable, even-tempered, and courteous manner. He would comport himself on the bench with dignity and fairness.” [Letter from Charles J. Cooper to Sen. Orrin Hatch, 11/9/1995 via Congressional Record, 3/19/97]

Former Associate Attorney General Jay B. Stephens: “In sum, his service as an Assistant United States Attorney was marked by dedication, sound judgment, excellent legal ability, a balanced temperament, and the highest ethical and professional standards. These are qualities which I believe he would bring to the bench as well.” [Letter from Jay B. Stephens to Sen. Chuck Grassley, 11/28/1995 via Congressional Record, 3/19/97]

Curt Levey, Executive Director of the Committee For Justice: “You’ll have, if not a love fest, something close to it if [the choice is] a Garland.” [NY Mag, 4/23/2010]

Carrie Severino, Chief Counsel and Policy Director to the Judicial Crisis Network: “But of those the President could nominate, we could do a lot worse than Merrick Garland… He’s the best scenario we could hope for to bring the tension and the politics in the city down a notch for the summer.” [Washington Post, 4/23/10]

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