On a sunny day in the Rose Garden Wednesday, President Barack Obama exercised his Constitutional duty, telling those assembled at the White House he’d nominated federal appeals court judge Merrick Garland to fill the U.S. Supreme Court seat left vacant when conservative Justice Antonin Scalia died at a Texas resort in February.
The 63-year-old fellow Chicagoan—as both he and the president pointed out—is currently the chief judge of the U.S. Court of Appeals for the D.C. Circuit, which Obama said is often regarded as “The Second-Highest Court In The Land.” Legal observers have called Garland a “centrist” and a “moderate” jurist.
“I’ve selected a nominee who is widely recognized not only as one of America’s sharpest legal minds but someone who brings to his work a spirit of decency, modesty, integrity, even-handedness and excellence,” said President Obama, noting that Garland has “earned the respect and admiration of leaders from both sides of the aisle,” and just as tellingly, that “he is uniquely prepared to serve immediately.”
Obama noted that the Senate is about to take a two-week recess for the Easter break, but he will go to Capitol Hill on Thursday to ask Republicans there to give Garland a fair hearing and then schedule an up or down vote—something that Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky) and Senate Judiciary Committee Chairman Chuck Grassley (R-Iowa) have so far refused to do.
“When they return, I hope that they’ll act in a bipartisan fashion,” said Obama. “I hope they’re fair. That’s all. I hope they are fair.”
When it was Judge Garland’s turn to speak at the podium, he was visibly moved by the occasion.
“This is the greatest honor of my life, other than Lynn agreeing to marry me 28 years ago!” Garland began, pausing to hold back his emotions as he was flanked by a beaming Vice President Joe Biden and a more somber President Obama. “It’s also the greatest gift I’ve received except—and there’s another caveat—the birth of our daughters, Jessie and Becky.” He mentioned that his oldest daughter was hiking in the mountains and out of cell service range when the president called about the nomination, provoking some light laughter rippling through the audience.
“To me there could be no higher public service than serving as a member of the United States Supreme Court,” said Garland. He credited his family for getting him to this point, citing his father “who ran the smallest of small businesses from a room in his basement,” always impressing upon him “the importance of hard work and fair dealing,” and his mother, who instilled in him and his siblings “the understanding that service to the community is a responsibility above all others.”
“I know my mother is watching this on television and crying her eyes out, so are my sisters, who have supported me in every step I have ever taken,” he continued, almost doing the same. “I only wish my father were here to see this today.”
During Garland’s confirmation to the U.S. Court of Appeals, Obama pointed out, “he earned overwhelming bipartisan praise from Senators and legal experts alike. Republican Sen. Orrin Hatch, who was then chairman of the Senate Judiciary Committee, supported his nomination. Back then, he said, ‘In all honesty, I would like to see one person come to this floor and say one reason why Merrick Garland does not deserve this position.’ He actually accused fellow Senate Republicans trying to obstruct Merrick’s confirmation of ‘playing politics with judges.’ And he has since said that Judge Garland would be a consensus nominee for the Supreme Court, who would be very well supported by all sides and there would be no question Merrick would be confirmed with bipartisan support.”
The president noted that in 1995 a majority of Democrats and Republicans had voted to confirm Garland to appeals court, where he has now served more than 18 years. The tally was 76-23, and it’s been reported that Grassley was on the nay side.
In a brief biographical summary, Obama recounted that Garland, who was born and raised in Chicago, had gone to Harvard, graduating summa cum laude, and then onto Harvard Law School, where Garland paid his way “by working as a tutor, by stocking shoes in a shoe store, and, in what is always a painful moment for any young man, by selling his comic book collection.”
Standing beside the president, Judge Garland nodded and put his hand to his chest, drawing laughter from the crowd. “Been there!” added the president, as he continued recounting Garland’s record.
After law school, Garland clerked for two of President Eisenhower’s judicial appointees, including Supreme Court Justice William Brennan. Then Garland joined a law firm and earned a partnership within four years.
In 1989, the president said at the Rose Garden, Merrick “made a highly unusual career decision. He walked away from a comfortable and lucrative law practice to return to public service. Merrick accepted a low-level job as a federal prosecutor in President George H. W. Bush’s administration. Took a 50 percent pay cut. Traded in his elegant partner’s office for a windowless closet that smelled of stale cigarette smoke.”
Garland’s sterling record as a federal prosecutor, where “he quickly made a name for himself going after corrupt politicians and violent criminals,” explained Obama, took him to the Justice Department, where he oversaw “every aspect of the federal response to the Oklahoma City bombing in the aftermath of that act of terror.” The 1995 attack on the Aflred P. Murrah Federal Building killed 168 people, including many children who were in a daycare facility there.
“He led the investigation and supervised the prosecution that brought Timothy McVeigh to justice,” said Obama, praising Garland for “the pains he took to do everything by the book,” because Garland didn’t want to take any chances that “someone who murdered innocent Americans might go free on a technicality.”
Recounting his experience handling the bombing investigation, Garland told the Rose Garden audience, “I saw up close the devastation that can happen when someone abandons the justice system as a way of resolving grievances and instead takes matters into his own hands.”
Reaffirming the American people’s faith in the justice system seemed to be the unofficial theme of the day.
“Of the many powers and responsibilities that the Constitution invests in the presidency, few are more consequential than appointing a Supreme Court justice—particularly one to succeed Justice Scalia, one of the most influential jurists of our time,” said Obama, who added that the members of the Supreme Court are “the final arbiters of American law. They safeguard our rights; they ensure that our system is one of laws and not men.”
Obama said that the decision whom to nominate to the Court required him to set aside “short-term expediency and narrow politics,” and he urged the Senate Republicans to do the same.
“I know it is tempting to make this nomination simply an extension of our divided politics, the squabbling that’s going on in the news every day,” the president said. “But to go down that path would be wrong. It would be a betrayal of our best traditions and a betrayal of the vision of our founding documents.”
The immediate reaction to the nomination seemed to fall along party lines.
“If Merrick Garland can’t get bipartisan support, no one can,” said U.S. Sen. Charles Schumer, New York’s senior Democrat, in a statement. “He is a thoughtful jurist with impeccable credentials who has already garnered overwhelming bipartisan support for a job that requires nearly the exact same criteria as a Supreme Court justice. He gets the impact of the Court’s decisions on hardworking Americans in the real world. We hope the saner heads in the Republican Party will prevail on Chuck Grassley and Mitch McConnell to do their job and hold hearings so America can make its own judgment as to whether Merrick Garland belongs on the court.”
“President Obama has done the right thing by taking the first step toward filling the vacancy on the bench and nominating someone he believes is extremely qualified for the job,” said Sen. Kirsten Gillibrand, the state’s junior Democrat, in a statement. “Now it is time for the Senate to do its job, hold hearings, assess his qualifications and vote on his nomination in a timely manner. The cases before the Supreme Court are too important to go months without a justice and we owe it to the American people to hold hearings and vote on the nomination.”
But Wendy Long, the nominee of the Republican, Conservative and Reform parties to challenge Sen. Schumer in the November election, insisted that the Senate should not act on the president’s nomination.
“Judge Merrick Garland seems like a good man,” said Long in a statement. “That does not mean he should be elevated to the Supreme Court, especially for the seat of Justice Antonin Scalia, when Americans’ rights such as the right to bear arms under the Second Amendment and the expansive use of executive power to alter immigration and other laws is at stake, and especially in the midst of a contentious presidential and Senate election.
“There is no way that Obama and Chuck Schumer would allow anyone to ascend to the Supreme Court whom they were not confident would be a vote for their liberal activist agenda that has already done so much damage to our country and our Constitution,” Long continued. “It is much more decent to Judge Garland not to put him through the wringer of a confirmation process that is ultimately going nowhere.”
But New York’s top prosecutor, Attorney General Eric T. Schneiderman, a Democrat, vehemently disagreed.
“Failure to fill the vacancy would undermine the rule of law and ultimately impair the functioning of state governments within our federal system,” said Schneiderman in a statement praising the president for picking Garland. “The Senate should move forward, do its job, and hold a hearing and a vote without unnecessary delay.”
“A delay in filling the ninth seat on the nation’s highest court will impact the Court’s ability to resolve disputes when the justices are split four-four,” said David P. Miranda, president of the New York State Bar Association, which has 74,000 members, making it the largest bar association in the country.
“The late Justice Antonin Scalia made that point in declining to recuse himself in Cheney v. US. District Court for the District of Columbia,” said Miranda in a statement about the Garland nomination. “[Scalia] explained what would have happened if he recused himself while sitting on the Court of Appeals: ‘There, my place would be taken by another judge, and the case would proceed normally,’ Scalia noted. ‘On the Supreme Court, however, the consequence is different: The Court proceeds with eight Justices, raising the possibility that, by reason of a tie vote, it will find itself unable to resolve the significant legal issue presented by the case.’
“Scalia was writing about how a single case might be affected by a temporary vacancy,” explained Miranda. “The argument to fill the vacancy created by his death is even more compelling, because it impacts an entire term of cases, not just one case. Justice Scalia’s words live on after his passing. The process should move forward expeditiously.”
“This is precisely the time when we should play it straight and treat the process of appointing a Supreme Court justice with the seriousness and care it deserves because our Supreme Court really is unique,” said President Obama at the Rose Garden announcement. “It’s supposed to be above politics. It has to be—and it should stay that way.”
Then he paused.
“To suggest that someone as qualified and respected as Merrick Garland doesn’t even deserve a hearing, let alone an up or down vote, to join an institution as important as our Supreme Court, when two-thirds of Americans believe otherwise? That would be unprecedented,” Obama said. “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 piñata? That can’t be right!”
Whether the Senate will take up the nomination remains to be seen. The president said he hopes that Judge Garland can take his seat on the Court by the fall.