President Barack Obama nominated federal appeals court judge Merrick Garland to the Supreme Court on Wednesday to replace the late Justice Antonin Scalia, a move that sets up a confrontation with Republicans.
Obama said Garland is “widely recognized as one of one America’s sharpest legal minds” and “uniquely prepared to serve immediately” on the Supreme Court. The president said Garland would bring a spirit of modesty, integrity and even-handedness to the nation's highest court and praised his work in investigating and supervising the prosecution that brought Oklahoma City bomber Timothy McVeigh to justice.
"He grasps the way the law affects the daily reality of people’s lives in a big, complicated democracy," Obama said.
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.
Garland, his voice cracking, said Wednesday at the White House Rose Garden, "This is the greatest honor of my life…it's also the greatest gift I've ever received."
Obama noted Garland was confirmed to the D.C. Circuit in 1997 with backing from a majority in both parties, including seven current Republicans senators. But 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.
The president said Garland will travel to Capitol Hill on Thursday to meet one-on-one with senators and urged Republican senators to grant hearings and a confirmation vote. He said if they don't, it would be an abdication for the Senate's constitutional duty and would show the nominating process is "beyond repair."
"Presidents don’t stop working in the final year of their term. Neither should a senator," Obama said.
Sen. Chuck Schumer of New York, the No. 3 Democratic leader, called Garland's selection, "a bipartisan choice."
Senate Minority Leader Harry Reid, who spoke to Obama Wednesday morning, said in brief remarks on the Senate floor that Republicans must act on the president's choice. "He's doing his job this morning, they should do theirs," said the Nevada Democrat.
Republicans have offered up no potential candidates that would win their backing and no route to filling the seat.
"Give the people a voice in filling this vacancy," Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell said on the House floor Wednesday.
Ahead of Obama's announcement, the Republican Party set up a task force that will orchestrate attack ads, petitions and media outreach. The aim is to bolster Senate Republicans' strategy of denying consideration of Obama's nominee. The party's chairman, Reince Priebus, described it as the GOP's most comprehensive judicial response effort ever.
On the other side, Obama allies have been drafted to run a Democratic effort that will involve liberal groups that hope an Obama nominee could pull the high court's ideological balance to the left. The effort would target states where activists believe Republicans will feel political heat for opposing hearings once Obama announced his nominee.
"In putting forward a nominee today, I am fulfilling my constitutional duty. I’m doing my job," Obama said in an email to supporters ahead of the announcement. "I hope that our senators will do their jobs, and move quickly to consider my nominee. That is what the Constitution dictates, and that’s what the American people expect and deserve from their leaders."
The White House created Twitter handle @ScotusNom for the nomination process, which gained nearly 13,000 followers in three hours. One of the tweets said: "The last time a president's Supreme Court nominee was denied a vote? 1875."
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.
Garland grew up in suburban Chicago, attending Niles West High School in Skokie before graduating with honors from Harvard University and Harvard Law School. He 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 Chief Justice John Roberts also clerked.
In 1988, he gave up a plush partner's office in a powerhouse law firm 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 bombing at the federal courthouse to supervise the investigation. The case made his career and his reputation. He oversaw the convictions of McVeigh and Terry Nichols, and went on to supervise the investigation into Unabomber Ted Kaczynski.
Before becoming a judge in 1997, Garland served in the Justice Department as principal associate deputy attorney general and deputy assistant attorney general in the criminal division. He was a federal prosecutor in the District of Columbia from 1989 to 1992 and a partner in the law firm of Arnold & Porter from 1985 to 1989 and from 1992 to 1993.
He was also considered for the Supreme Court in 2010 after the retirement of Justice Stevens.