Despite opposition from Republicans who have vowed to block any nominee, President Obama announced on Wednesday his choice to fill the vacancy on the U.S. Supreme Court: Merrick Garland.
One month after the death of the U.S. Associate Justice Antonin Scalia, Obama declared in the White House Rose Garden his choice to replace the jurist is Garland, who’s served as chief judge of the U.S. Court of Appeals for the D.C. Circuit since 1997.
“Chief Judge Garland is more than just a brilliant legal mind, he’s someone who has a keen understanding that justice is about more than abstract legal theories, more than some footnote in a dusty case book,” Obama said. “His life experience, his experience in places like Oklahoma City, informs his view that the law is more than an intellectual exercise. He understands the way law affects the daily reality of peoples’ lives in a big, complicated democracy, and in rapidly changing times.”
Describing Garland’s history, Obama took note of the sacrifices the nominee put himself through to pay for Harvard Law School, including “a painful moment for any young man, by selling his comic book collection.” At which point, Garland briefly placed his hand on his heart, eliciting laughter from those in the Rose Garden.
In an attempt to allay Republican concerns about a Democratic president choosing the successor to the conservative Scalia, Obama noted Garland has received praise from both U.S. Chief Justice John Roberts as well as Sen. Orrin Hatch (R-Utah), who has said Garland would be a “consensus nominee” for the Supreme Court and “very well supported by all sides.”
Speaking in the Rose Garden after Obama, Garland choked up, saying being nominated to the Supreme Court is “the greatest honor of my life” other than his wife agreeing to marry him 28 years ago.
“Fidelity to the Constitution and the law has been the cornerstone of my professional life, and it’s the hallmark of the kind of judge I have tried to be for the past 18 years,” Garland said. “If the Senate sees fit to confirm me to the position for which I have been nominated today, I promise to continue on that course.”
Among those in attendance at the Rose Garden announcement were Democrats who sit on the Senate Judiciary Committee, such as Sens. Patrick Leahy (D-Vt.), Dianne Feinstein (D-Calif.) and Al Franken (D-Minn.), as well as Human Rights Campaign President Chad Griffin and Gautam Raghavan, vice president of policy for the Gill Foundation.
Griffin urged the Senate to move forward with consideration of Garland’s nomination in a statement.
“Americans deserve a full Supreme Court bench, and President Obama’s nominee deserves a hearing,” Griffin said. “There is no doubt that Merrick Garland is a highly qualified candidate, and the Senate has a Constitutional responsibility to give him swift and fair consideration. The Supreme Court has a sacred responsibility to uphold the rights of all citizens, and we must hold accountable any politicians who tamper with our nation’s highest court for their own gain.”
Obama’s choice of Garland, 63, is seen an as appeasement to Senate Republicans because the nominee is older and has a reputation for being a moderate. In 2010, when the nomination of Garland was floated as a possible successor to former U.S. Associate Justice John Paul Stevens, SCOTUSBlog’s Tom Goldstein determined that “Judge Garland rarely votes in favor of criminal defendants’ appeals of their convictions.”
As ThinkProgress reported, Garland in 2003 joined an opinion holding that the federal judiciary lacks authority “to assert habeas corpus jurisdiction at the behest of an alien held at a military base leased from another nation, a military base outside the sovereignty of the United States,” which effectively prohibited Guantanamo Bay detainees from seeking relief in civilian courts. The U.S. Supreme Court later overturned that determination.
In the aftermath of the U.S. Supreme Court’s decision in favor of marriage equality, Garland’s views on same-sex marriage are unknown because in his capacity as a judge he never had to rule on either the constitutionality of state marriage bans or the Defense of Marriage Act.
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. During that time, Garland supervised U.S. Justice Department investigations into the 1995 Oklahoma City bombing and Unabomber Ted Kaczynski.
Despite his moderate record, Garland as Obama’s nominee is seen as more likely to join the court’s four liberal members more often than its four conservative members.
White House Press Secretary Josh Earnest spoke broadly about the need to confirm Garland to the Supreme Court when asked by the Washington Blade for a message to those wondering if Garland would support equal justice under the law for LGBT people.
“I think what I would simply observe is that the Supreme Court has important work to do, and they are handling some issues that can and will have a profound impact on the day-to-day lives of the American people,” Earnest said. “That’s why I would associate myself with the comments of President Reagan, who said every day that passes with the Supreme Court below full strength impairs the people’s business in that crucially important body. He’s right about that, and given the significance of the cases that are before the Supreme Court and will be before the Supreme Court in the next term, that’s why we believe that the Senate should act without delay on the nomination of someone to fill a vacancy on the Supreme Court that they have described as a consensus nominee.”
Earnest declined to say whether LGBT rights issues came up in conversations between Obama and Garland before the nomination was announced, adding Obama didn’t take the opportunity of interviews of potential nominees “to interrogate them on specific issues.”
“The president’s much more interested in understanding their approach to the law, and their approach to the work that we ask judges to do,” Earnest said. “And certainly, when it comes to Chief Judge Garland, he’s someone that has an established track record and someone who has spent decades thinking the best way for judges to interpret the law and not advance a political agenda, so that was nature of the conversation they had.”
Following Obama’s announcement, Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) took to the Senate floor to reiterate his position the next president of the United States should decide who fills the vacancy on the Supreme Court.
“The American people may well elect a president who decides to nominate Judge Garland for Senate consideration,” McConnell said. “The next president may also nominate someone very different. Either way, our view is this: Give the people a voice in the filling of this vacancy.”
Sen. Charles Grassley (R-Iowa), chair of the Senate Judiciary Committee, also expressed a desire to hold off on confirmation, saying the U.S. Constitution doesn’t detail how the U.S. Senate should provide advice and consent for Supreme Court nominees.
“A lifetime appointment that could dramatically impact individual freedoms and change the direction of the court for at least a generation is too important to get bogged down in politics,” Grassley said. “The American people shouldn’t be denied a voice. Do we want a court that interprets the law, or do we want a court that acts as an unelected super legislature? This year is a tremendous opportunity for our country to have a sincere and honest debate about the role of the Supreme Court in our constitutional system of government.”
Anticipating reluctance from Republicans to move forward with the nomination, Obama said the assertion Garland shouldn’t receive a hearing in the Senate is “unprecedented,” especially when two-thirds of the American public believe otherwise.
“To suggest that someone who has served his country with honor and dignity, with a distinguished track record of delivering justice for the American people might be treated, as one Republican leader stated, as a political pinata,” Obama said. “That can’t be right.”
Obama said Garland would on Thursday begin meeting with U.S. senators on Capitol Hill, but acknowledged in any event immediate action on the nomination won’t take place because the Senate is set to go on recess for two weeks.
“I have fulfilled my constitutional duty,” Obama said. “Now it’s time for the Senate to do theirs. Presidents do not stop working in the final year of their term. Neither should a senator.”