On Wednesday morning, President Barack Obama announced he was nominating Merrick Garland to the spot on the US Supreme Court left vacant when arch-conservative Antonin Scalia died last month. The 63-year-old Garland is the chief judge of the US Court of Appeals in Washington, DC, a veteran of the Department of Justice, and a finalist for the last two SCOTUS seats filled by Obama. He's a relatively safe, expected choice—and one that still faces a steep uphill battle to being confirmed before the November general election.
Noting that he consulted every member of the Senate Judiciary Committee, several bar associations, and people from across the political spectrum before making his choice, Obama said in a press conference he went with "one of America's sharpest legal minds."
"To find someone who just about everybody not only respects but genuinely likes–– that is rare," the president said. "But that speaks to who Merrick Garland is not just as a lawyer, but as a man."
In advance of Obama's announcement, Senate Republicans promised to block his choice regardless of who he picked, preferring to wait until the general election gives the nation a new president. On Tuesday, Chuck Grassley, the chairman of the Senate Judiciary Committee, released a statement that reiterated this.
"Everyone knows this president won't be filling the current vacancy. Nonetheless, the president has indicated he intends to submit a nomination," Grassley wrote. "That's OK. He's constitutionally empowered to make the nomination. And the Senate holds the constitutional power to withhold consent, as we will."
Grassley also praised Scalia, who famously pushed the idea that the Constitution is not a "living document" but should be interpreted based on what it meant to the men who signed it over 200 years ago. "The temptation to apply their own views rather than the Constitution has always lurked among the justices," Grassley wrote. "And Americans know all too well in recent decades that the Supreme Court has done this regularly."
Democrats see this refusal to even consider an Obama nominee as yet more obstructionism from a Republican Party that's become famous for such tactics. According to the Washington Post, who first broke the news of Garland's selection, a four-page document was circulated earlier this week called "Read What Republicans Had to Say About President Obama's Supreme Court Nominee, Merrick Garland, Before He Was President Obama's Supreme Court Nominee." The briefing material highlights Garland's previous support from Republicans, including including Senators Orrin Hatch and Lindsay Graham, both current members of the Judiciary Committee.
Notably, when Bill Clinton nominated Garland to be a federal judge in 1995, he was praised by some Republicans. "Senator Orrin G. Hatch of Utah, who is chairman of the Judiciary Committee, has lauded Mr. Garland," the New York Times noted at the time. "The senator's aides have described Mr. Garland as fine a nominee as Republicans could hope to get from a Democratic president."
In fact, Garland may be too much of a moderate for many on the left, having sided with the government in previous cases involving Guantanamo Bay inmates and the rescheduling of marijuana. In 2010, when he was being considered as a replacement for Justice John Paul Stevens, the Post noted that "a small but vocal group of activists is privately saying that Garland is not liberal enough to replace the legendary Stevens... They say Garland is a centrist, who won't champion liberal concerns, too often finds middle ground with his conservative colleagues."
In other words, he's the sort of judge who would probably be in shoo-in for the nation's highest court if this weren't an election year.
Obama acknowledged this during his speech, and implored the GOP to give his nominee a fair shake. The president said that failure to give Garland a hearing and a vote would cause the reputation of the Supreme Court, faith in our justice system, and our democracy as a whole to suffer.
"I have fulfilled my constitutional duty," he 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."
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