Obama's pick engages Supreme Court battle

Obama's pick engages Supreme Court battle

President Barack Obama and Vice President Joe Biden look on as Merrick Garland, Mr Obama's nominee for the Supreme Court vacancy, speaks during his rose garden announcement ceremony, at the White House in Washington, March 16. Mr Garland is currently chief judge for U.S. Court of Appeals D.C. Circuit. (New York Times photo)
President Barack Obama and Vice President Joe Biden look on as Merrick Garland, Mr Obama's nominee for the Supreme Court vacancy, speaks during his rose garden announcement ceremony, at the White House in Washington, March 16. Mr Garland is currently chief judge for U.S. Court of Appeals D.C. Circuit. (New York Times photo)

WASHINGTON – US President Barack Obama on Wednesday nominated Merrick B. Garland to be the nation’s 113th Supreme Court justice, choosing a centrist appellate judge who could reshape the court for a generation and become the face of a bitter election-year confirmation struggle.

In selecting Mr Garland, 63, a well-known figure in Washington legal circles who has drawn praise from members of both parties, Mr Obama dared Republican senators to ignore public pressure and make good on their promise to block consideration of any nominee until after the next president is chosen.

The nomination to fill the seat on the court created by the death of Justice Antonin Scalia sets in motion a standoff that is likely to play out for many months, perhaps without resolution. Its outcome could tip the ideological balance of the nation's highest court, and an array of well-financed interest groups on both sides has already assembled for the battle over the nomination.

"I've selected a nominee who is widely recognised 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," Mr Obama said in a formal White House rose garden ceremony announcing his selection, where the president was flanked by Mr Garland and Vice President Joe Biden. "Presidents do not stop working in the final year of their term; neither should a senator."

Republicans quickly rejected Mr Obama's challenge. senator Mitch McConnell of Kentucky, the majority leader, appeared on the Senate floor shortly after the president's remarks to declare an end to Mr Garland's nomination, no matter his qualifications. In case there was any doubt, Mr McConnell later called Mr Garland personally to say he would not be receiving him in his Capitol office, nor taking any action on his nomination.

"The American people may well elect a president who decides to nominate Judge Garland for Senate consideration," Mr McConnell said on the Senate floor. "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."

Members of congress present for President Barack Obama's announcement of his nominee for the Supreme Court vacancy, Merrick Garland, currently chief judge for US Court of Appeals DC Circuit, in the rose garden at the White House in Washington, March 16. From left: Senate Minority Leader Harry Reid, with senators Patrick Leahy, Dick Durbin, Chuck Schumer and Dianne Feinstein (New York Times photo)

In choosing Mr Garland, a former prosecutor who has served on the Court of Appeals for the District of Columbia Circuit since 1997 and as its chief judge since 2013, Mr Obama opted to select a jurist better known for his meticulous work ethic and adherence to legal principles than for an ideological bent.

"At a time when our politics are so polarised, at a time when norms and customs of political rhetoric and courtesy and comity are so often treated like they're disposable, this is precisely the time when we should play it straight," Mr Obama told an audience that included Mr Garland's family, Democratic senators and liberal activists.

White House officials considered, and rejected, advice from supporters who urged Mr Obama to pressure Republicans by nominating a member of a racial minority. They also declined to zero in on a liberal champion who might have excited the core Democratic supporters that Hillary Clinton or Bernie Sanders would need in the general election.

Some liberals expressed dismay with that decision. Charles Chamberlain, executive director of Democracy in America, said it was "deeply disappointing that President Obama failed to use this opportunity to add the voice of another progressive woman of colour to the Supreme Court, and instead put forward a nominee seemingly designed to appease intransigent Republicans."

But White House officials said Mr Obama and his aides made the calculation that focusing on finding a nominee with impeccable legal credentials would expose the Republican opposition as based solely on politics. The president passed over two other federal appellate judges on his short list who might have achieved those goals: Sri Srinivasan, 49, of Indian descent, and Paul Watford, 48, an African-American who is viewed as more liberal than Mr Garland.

"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," the president said.

President Barack Obama walks to the rose garden with Merrick Garland, his nominee for the Supreme Court vacancy, to a news conference at the White House in Washington, March 16. (New York Times photo)

Mr Obama had twice considered Mr Garland for the Supreme Court during his first term, and some aides viewed him at the time as an "in-case-of-emergency-break-glass" candidate whom they should save for a future vacancy where they needed a nominee who was broadly acceptable to Republicans. That future appears to have arrived.

A few Senate Republicans have suggested recently that if Mrs Clinton is elected in November, they might be more open to considering Mr Garland as an alternative to a more liberal nominee. And as Mr Garland prepared to begin meeting with senators on Thursday, there was early evidence that at least some Republican senators were softening their stances.

A White House statement said that senator Chuck E. Grassley, the chairman of the Judiciary Committee, had agreed to meet with Mr Garland, but that the meeting would be scheduled after the two-week congressional recess ended. Senators Mark Kirk of Illinois and Kelly Ayotte of New Hampshire, both facing steep re-election challenges in Democratic-leaning states, said they would meet with Mr Garland.

Senators Susan M. Collins and Jeff Flake of Arizona, both Republicans, have also said they would sit down with Mr Obama's nominee. And Senator Orrin G. Hatch, a member of the Judiciary Committee, said he would be open to holding hearings on Mr Garland during a lame-duck congressional session after the election.

The White House reached out to Mr Garland, along with a number of other potential nominees, days after Mr Scalia's death Feb 13. Mr Obama interviewed him last Thursday even as the president's short list, which included his name and those of Mr Srinivasan and Mr Watford, leaked in the news media, alarming the West Wing officials who were trying to keep the process out of the spotlight.

Mr Obama spent Friday and Saturday in Texas, attending the South by Southwest festival and Democratic fundraisers before playing a round of golf. He returned to Washington late Saturday night and informed his top aides soon afterward that Mr Garland would be his pick.

Denis McDonough, the president's chief of staff, was one of only about a half-dozen top aides who knew the choice as planning for the public rollout of the nominee kicked into gear. Much of the work could be prepared without knowing the specific nominee, but on Tuesday night, White House videographers recorded Mr Garland for the gauzy biographical video that they released Wednesday morning.

It came out just after Mr Obama appeared under a sunny sky at the rose garden to introduce Mr Garland and urge Republicans to give him a chance.

"I simply ask Republicans in the Senate to give him a fair hearing, and then an up-or-down vote," Mr Obama said. "If you don't, then it will not only be an abdication of the Senate's constitutional duty, it will indicate a process for nominating and confirming judges that is beyond repair."

Merrick Garland, second from right, then a federal prosecutor, at a news conference with Attorney General Janet Reno at the Justice Department in Washington, Aug 10, 1995. Mr Garland, who gathered evidence for the eventual prosecution of Timothy McVeigh after the Oklahoma City bombing, is now President Obama’s nominee for the Supreme Court. (New York Times file photo)

Mr Garland's professional life was shaped in part by the bombing of the Alfred P. Murrah Federal Building in Oklahoma City in 1995, which killed 168 people. As a Justice Department official in the Clinton administration, he coordinated the government's response, starting the case against the two men charged, Timothy McVeigh and Terry Nichols, and eventually supervising their prosecution. McVeigh was executed.

Mr Garland insisted on going to the scene even as bodies were being pulled from the rubble, friends said. His role captivated Mr Obama, said Valerie Jarrett, the president's senior adviser, who added that it "struck the president because it reflects on the chief judge's character."

In his brief remarks, Mr Garland emotionally described his career as a prosecutor and a judge, saying that "fidelity to the constitution and the law have been the cornerstone of my professional life." He said that if the Senate confirmed him, he promised to "continue on that course."

The scene captured an extraordinary moment of uncertainty for Mr Garland, twice passed over for the Supreme Court and now facing a path to confirmation that is, at best, ambiguous - and could be a dead end entirely.

Senator Amy Klobuchar, a member of the Judiciary panel who attended the ceremony, said that may have helped move Mr Garland to the verge of tears during his comments.

"This is about how this burden of standing up for an independent judiciary - even if you may never get confirmed - is so important in this incredibly polarized time," Ms Klobuchar said in an interview.

She said many Republicans who had opposed Mr Obama's earlier, successfully confirmed Supreme Court nominees, Elena Kagan and Sonia Sotomayor, had told her during those proceedings that they would have supported the president if he had selected Mr Garland instead.

"It's kind of hard to get away from the fact that he, in the past and now, has been viewed as a consensus person," Ms Klobuchar added.


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