President Barack Obama on Wednesday announced his intent to nominate federal Judge Merrick Garland to fill the the late Antonin Scalia’s seat on the Supreme Court, formally kicking off a bitter election-year battle with Senate Republicans that could overshadow all other work in Washington in the lead-up to the November races.
Garland, 63, is the top judge on the U.S. Court of Appeals for the District of Columbia Circuit and is considered a moderate and seasoned legal mind who has earned respect from both sides of the aisle. Obama’s selection of him over younger, more liberal or diverse alternatives is designed to inflict maximum political pain on Senate Republicans, who have promised to block any of the president’s picks.
Some GOP lawmakers indicated Wednesday that they could be open to supporting Garland during Congress’ lame-duck session should their party lose the White House in November.
During his formal announcement of the nomination in the White House Rose Garden, Obama said Garland 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, evenhandedness and excellence.”
The president called on Senate Republicans to hold a hearing and a vote on Garland. He said the failure to do so would “provoke an endless cycle of tit for tat” on judicial nominations that would hurt democracy and Congress as an institution.
“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,” Obama said.
Senate Republican leaders continued to hold their ground Wednesday. They previously said they would not stage any informal meetings, hearings or votes on any nominee while Obama is in office since it’s so close to the election.
In remarks on the Senate floor shortly after Obama’s announcement, Majority Leader Mitch McConnell, R-Ky., said lawmakers have the constitutional discretion to do so.
“The American people may well elect a president who decides to nominate Judge Garland for Senate consideration. The next president may also nominate someone very different,” he said. “Either way, our view is this: Give the people a voice in the filling of this vacancy.”
McConnell, who voted against Garland’s nomination to the federal bench in the 1990s, was careful not to criticize the judge’s credentials. He instead emphasized that he was following the example Vice President Joe Biden set when he was chairman of the Senate Judiciary Committee. McConnell said lawmakers should instead focus on advancing other, more bipartisan legislation in this contentious election year.
Both of Georgia’s senators, Johnny Isakson and David Perdue, are in line with their Republican colleagues and say the next president should fill the Supreme Court vacancy. They both repeated their support for that strategy in statements Wednesday.
The impasse prompted an all-out media blitz from the White House and Democrats to embarrass the GOP.
Democrats are focusing on vulnerable Republicans running for re-election this fall in blue and purple states such as Illinois and Pennsylvania. They’re also targeting Senate Judiciary Chairman Chuck Grassley and Utah’s Orrin Hatch, the Senate’s president pro tempore. The White House highlighted remarks Hatch made in 2010 calling Garland a “consensus nominee.”
The brewing blood bath plays directly into the election-year politics that have come to dominate just about all Washington business this year. The rift over the Supreme Court could breed the kind of partisan bitterness that may damage congressional efforts to pass more consensus legislation later this year, including government spending bills and a criminal justice overhaul.
After all, control of the Senate is at stake. McConnell, who must defend 24 GOP seats this year — compared with 10 for the Democrats — is hoping that the party’s bold line on the Supreme Court nominee will pay off in that effort.
But at least two Republican senators, Hatch and Arizona freshman Jeff Flake, said Wednesday that they could be willing to support Garland in the lame-duck session, particularly if the alternative is a more liberal pick from Hillary Clinton in 2017 should she win the presidency.
Robert A. Schapiro, the dean of Emory University’s law school, said Obama’s nomination of Garland “seems designed to present a relatively appealing option to Republican senators.”
“Confirming Garland would avoid the risk of a younger, more liberal nominee from would-be President Hillary Clinton,” he said.
Regardless, Schapiro said he expects Garland’s nomination to “languish,” given election-year politics.
Amy Steigerwalt, a political science professor at Georgia State University, said more cracks within the GOP are becoming apparent, particularly among senators facing tight re-election races.
“We’re already, even within a couple hours of the announcement, starting to see some fracturing within the Republican coalition in that there are a number of incumbent senators who are facing close re-election contests in November … who have either refused to say something about whether they would meet with the nominee or have been more on the fence,” she said.
Long considered a contender for the high court, Garland is a Harvard law graduate who spent much of his career in the Justice Department before being elevated to the federal bench. He also worked in private practice. The Chicagoan gained notoriety in the mid-1990s for coordinating the government’s response to the Oklahoma City bombing.
Nominated by President Bill Clinton to the D.C. circuit in 1995, his candidacy was stalled by Senate Republicans over a spat about the number of judges on that particular bench. When Garland was renominated in 1997, the Senate confirmed him 76-23.
The U.S. Court of Appeals for the District of Columbia is widely considered second only to the high court in importance and often hears cases brought against government agencies over issues such as federal policy, the separation of powers and national security.
“Fidelity to the Constitution and the law has been the cornerstone of my professional life, and it’s the hallmark of the kind of judge I have tried to be for the past 18 years,” Garland said in a short speech Wednesday. “If the Senate sees fit to confirm me to the position for which I have been nominated today, I promise to continue on that course.”