Election 2016

Obama's Supreme Court Nomination Launches the Other Massive Political Battle of 2016

Will the Senate even meet with a judge praised by both parties?

President Barack Obama has nominated D.C. Circuit Chief Judge Merrick B. Garland to the U.S. Supreme Court. It's a pick that appears intended to appeal to centrists in both parties.

Judge Garland, 63, is an Illinois native and Harvard Law School graduate who has served on the D.C. Circuit appeals court bench since 1997, which is considered the second most powerful court in the country. He was nominated by then-President Bill Clinton, confirmed by the Senate on a 76-23 vote and has a lifetime appointment to that court.

President Obama, in a written statement, said he would put forth a candidate who is “not only eminently qualified to be a Supreme Court Justice, but deserves a fair hearing, and an up-or-down vote.”

It remains to be seen if Judge Garland will receive a hearing and confirmation in the Senate. After the death of Justice Antonin Scalia, Senate Republicans insisted the vacancy shouldn’t be filled in Obama’s final year as president.

Early reactions to speculation about Obama nominating Garland and the announcement this morning were warm in seasoned legal circles, where Garland generally is praised as being moderate.

University of California Irvine School of Law professor Rick Hasen, writing on Election Law Blog, said, “Garland is indeed a moderate, someone who will not excite the Democratic base.... In short, Garland’s age, which may make some liberals oppose his nomination, may be precisely what is attractive to the President who actually wants to appoint someone to #SCOTUS, and not just put up the human pinata.”

Hasen blogged Wednesday morning that Garland signed onto the decision that created super PACS, SpeechNow v. FEC, which cited the Supreme Court's earlier Citizens Unitedruling 26 times. "Look, if I were a judge on the DC Circuit having to follow Supreme Court precedent I would have voted the same way," he said. "So I don’t think we can read anything into Judge Garland’s SpeechNow vote as to how he would rule to overturn Citizens United or in other campaign finance cases."

Harvard Law School professor Laurence Tribe told the Wall Street Journal, “Judge Garland is a brilliant jurist whom I’ve admired ever since he was my constitutional law student. His modesty, humility, and moderation make him a particularly suitable choice for these divided times.”

Erwin Chemerinsky, UC Irvine School of Law dean, told the Journal’s law blog, “He has no liberal paper trail. He’s everything Obama would want as a consensus pick. I think what Obama has done is pick somebody that’s unassailable. Whatever professional qualifications would make one suitable for the Supreme Court, Merrick has: Harvard Law School, clerked on the Supreme Court, big firm practice, prosecutor, 20 years on the DC. circuit.”

According to the White House website, Garland has more federal judicial experience than any Supreme Court nominee in history. He was a lawyer and prosecutor before being a judge, where he oversaw some of the most important federal criminal cases in recent history, including the prosecutions of Timothy McVeigh and Terry Nichols for the Oklahoma City bombing.

The White House posted quotes from Republicans supporting Garland, such as Utah Sen. Orrin Hatch last week saying, “[President Obama] could easily name Merrick Garland, who is a fine man.”

“I am writing to ask your support and assistance in the confirmation process for a second cousin.… Merrick Garland has had a distinguished legal career,” wrote Iowa Republican Gov. Terry Branstad in 1995.

“Any time Judge Garland disagrees, you know you’re in a difficult area,” said Chief Justice John Roberts in 2005. “And the function of his dissent, to make us focus on what we were deciding and to make sure that we felt we were doing the right thing, I think was well-served. But Judge Garland disagreed, and so it's obviously, to me, a case on which reasonable judges can disagree.”

Tomorrow, Garland will start traveling to the Senate to begin the nomination process,” said Obama, announcing the nomination on Wednesday. “I simply ask them to give him a fair hearing. … I have fulfilled my constitutional duty, now it is time for the Senate to do theirs.”  

Watch: Meet Merrick Garland, President Obama's Supreme Court Nominee

Steven Rosenfeld covers national political issues for AlterNet, including America's democracy and voting rights. He is the author of several books on elections and the co-author of Who Controls Our Schools: How Billionaire-Sponsored Privatization Is Destroying Democracy and the Charter School Industry (AlterNet eBook, 2016).

Sign Up!
Get AlterNet's Daily Newsletter in Your Inbox
+ sign up for additional lists
Select additional lists by selecting the checkboxes below before clicking Subscribe:
Election 2018