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Meet Merrick Garland: Obama's Nominee to the Supreme Court

The president nominated Garland, a moderate with past Republican support who has earned early praise from marijuana and climate change advocates, on Wednesday.
Photo by Pablo Martinez Monsivais/AP

President Barack Obama announced his nominee for the US Supreme Court Wednesday in the face of Senate Republicans' vows to block all action on an election-year confirmation.

Obama named Merrick Garland, the chief judge on the United States Court of Appeals for the DC Circuit, shortly after 11am Wednesday from the Rose Garden.

"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," Obama said. "These qualities and his long commitment to public service have earned him the respect and admiration of leaders from both sides of the aisle. He will ultimately bring that same character to bear on the Supreme Court, an institution in which he is uniquely prepared to serve immediately."


Garland delivered an emotional speech Wednesday morning, his voice wavering throughout, in which he talked about the importance and responsibility of public service.

"This is the greatest honor of my life," he said. "For me there could be no higher public service than serving as a member of the United States Supreme Court."

He also spoke about the need to follow the Constitution, saying any justice "must put aside his or her personal preferences and follow the law, not make it."

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Still, Obama's decision to nominate Garland, or any candidate, to the Supreme Court will likely only add to a bitter confirmation fight between the administration and the US Senate. Republican senators have promised to block any nominee for the vacancy created by Justice Antonin Scalia's death last month, arguing that the next president, who takes office in 2017, should be charged with the task.

Since Scalia's death, the highest court in the land has been evenly split with four conservative and four liberal justices on the bench. Scalia, the court's longest serving justice, was also one of its most conservative and controversial. Any potential Obama nominee, if confirmed, would likely shift the balance of the court to lean left for the first time in decades.

But Garland is widely considered a moderate and a safe bet for the Obama administration in the face of already heated Republican opposition to any nominee. Obama said Garland would head up to Capitol Hill on Thursday to begin meeting with senators individually, despite the Republican party's stance on the nomination.


Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell responded to Garland's nomination on the Senate floor shortly after the president's announcement Wednesday. McConnell said that his opposition to Garland had nothing to do with the nominee as a person, but was about "principle".

Obama, McConnell said, moved forward with Garland "not with the intent of seeing a nominee confirmed, but in order to politicize" the issue ahead of the November 8 elections.

McConnell cited Vice President Joe Biden's 1992 speech, in which he warned Congress against confirming a Supreme Court nominee during an election year. "It would be our pragmatic conclusion that once the political season is underway, and it is, action on a Supreme Court nomination must be put off until after the election campaign is over," Biden said at the time.

"The Biden rule reminds us that the decision the Senate announced weeks ago remains about a principle and not a person," McConnell said.

But Biden has said that those remarks have been taken out of context by Republicans, arguing now that "this is not an accurate description of my views on the subject." Biden said in the same 1992 speech that he would accept a moderate or compromise nominee, according to the New York Times.

Senate Judiciary Committee chairman Chuck Grassley echoed McConnell's comments, saying Wednesday that it is the president's constitutional right to nominate a candidate, but that it is also the Senate's right to block that nomination. He reiterated the Senate majority's position on an Obama nominee, asking the president to "give the people a voice in filling this vacancy."


Obama argued on Wednesday that an appointment to "an institution as important as the Supreme Court" "should be above politics." He asked Republicans to give Garland a fair confirmation hearing and up and down vote, saying that failure to do so would cause the US justice system and democracy to suffer.

The president praised Garland not only for his "brilliant legal mind," but also his "compassion," as demonstrated in his work on the Oklahoma bombing case. As chief judge at the DC circuit court, Garland is known for "building consensus as a thoughtful, fair-minded judge who follows the rule of law," Obama said.

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Garland is the United States Court of Appeals for the DC Circuit's chief judge and has been described as a "model, neutral judge" — the sort of centrist candidate that conservatives could possibly get on board with if they shift course and decide to consider an Obama nominee. Garland has had the support of conservative commentators and Supreme Court watchers in the past, when his name was floated for a possible opening, according to SCOTUSblog.

Garland is Obama's third nomination to the Supreme Court after his nominations of Sonia Sotomayor, 55, the court's first Hispanic justice in 2009, and Elena Kagan, 50, a year later in court's fourth woman justice in 2010. Garland, at 63, is an older pick to the bench. Presidents tend to choose nominees younger to carry on their legacy well beyond their term in office.Garland will be one of the oldest nominees to the Supreme Court in US history. And of Obama's five short-list candidates for the post, he is the only white male.


Garland formerly clerked for Supreme Court Associate Justice William Brennan and also served in the US Attorney General's office, where he oversaw cases including against Oklahoma City bomber Timothy McVeigh and Ted Kaczynski, aka the Unabomber. In 1995, President Bill Clinton nominated Garland for a position on the DC Circuit, but his confirmation was delayed for two years by senators, who argued about the need to fill the position at all.

Garland has also previously presided in cases involved Guantanamo Bay detainees, including one case in 2008 where he authored an opinion that reversed a detainee's designation as an "enemy combatant" by the Guantanamo review tribunal. President Obama last month unveiled his plans to close the detention center in Cuba to intense criticism from Republicans and Democrats alike.

Before joining the DC Circuit, Garland was one of three judges to oversee and rule against a case to reschedule marijuana, lowering federal regulation of the drug. The Drug Enforcement Administration was against rescheduling and fought the case in 2012. At the time, Garland sided with the DEA. "Don't we have to defer to the agency?" Garland asked. "We're not scientists. They are."

But several marijuana advocates praised Garland on Wednesday as a sensible pick for the high court, arguing that his reliance on science is a positive for the industry.

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"While we can't say for certain how he will be on the Bench if his nomination is accepted, Garland appears to be a safe choice from the cannabis industry perspective," Jeffrey M. Zucker, who is the president of Green Lion Partners, a cannabis consulting firm in Denver, Colorado, said Wednesday. "Although he hasn't been a champion of the issue, it's good to know that he has an open mind to listen to the scientists that actually understand how the plant's chemical compounds interact with the human body."

Grassley has previously said that the panel will not hold any confirmation hearings for an Obama nominee. Grassley previously delayed Garland's appointment to the DC Circuit Court of Appeals in the mid-1990s, not out of concerns about Garland himself, but because he argued against the cost of filling the seat. Garland was eventually confirmed to the role in April of 1997 in a 76-23 vote.

"The issue is not Mr. Garland," Grassley said at the time. "Clearly the evidence does not support filling the vacancy at a cost to taxpayers of $1 million a year."

At the time Senator Orrin Hatch also said Garland was "not only a fine nominee, but as good as Republicans can expect from [the Clinton] administration."

Even before Obama's announcement Wednesday, the Republican National Committee (RNC) convened a task force on the issue, to help the party fight its side of this battle in television ads ahead of the 2016 elections. In an email to press Wednesday, the RNC blamed the current Democrat leadership for creating "the modern day partisan gridlock that Supreme Court nominees face."

"We will not stand by idly while President Obama attempts to install a liberal majority on the court to further undermine our Constitution and protect his lawless actions," RNC chairman Reince Priebus said in a statement Wednesday.

Nominations in general are a highly contested affair, in which potential candidates are commonly scrutinized to a fierce degree, with their every previous hearing, opinion, or dissent dissected by opposing politicians to find any opportunity to throw the nomination out or veto.

Reuters contributed to this report.

Follow Liz Fields on Twitter: @lianzifields