President Barack Obama selected Merrick Garland for the U.S. Supreme Court on Wednesday, choosing a centrist Jewish judge meant to win over recalcitrant Senate Republicans whose leaders wasted no time in spurning the Democratic president.
Garland, 63, was picked to replace long-serving conservative Justice Antonin Scalia, who died on Feb. 13. The Chicago native serves as chief judge of the influential U.S. Court of Appeals for the District of Columbia Circuit and is a former prosecutor who has won praise from both Republicans and Democrats in the past.
He would be the fourth Jewish jurist on the nine-judge panel.
A bruising political fight is looming over the nomination, with the Republican-led Senate’s leaders vowing not to hold confirmation hearings or an up-or-down vote on any Obama nominee.
The lifetime appointment to the high court requires Senate confirmation.
Republicans, hoping a candidate from their party will win the Nov. 8 presidential election, are demanding that Obama leave the seat vacant and let his successor, to be sworn in next January, make the selection. Businessman and former reality TV star Donald Trump is leading among Republicans for the nomination and Obama’s former secretary of state, Hillary Clinton, is the front-runner on the Democratic side.
At a ceremony in the White House Rose Garden, Obama said if Republican senators refused to give Garland a fair hearing, “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 such a move would undermine the reputation of the Supreme Court and faith in the American justice system. “Our democracy will ultimately suffer as well,” Obama added.
Without Scalia, the nine-member Supreme Court is evenly split with four liberals and four conservative justices. Obama’s nominee could tilt the court to the left for the first time in decades, which could affect rulings on contentious issues including a woman’s right to choose an abortion, gun rights and political spending.
Obama said the Supreme Court was supposed to be above politics and he wanted it to remain so.
“At a time when our politics are so polarized, 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, and treat the process of appointing a Supreme Court justice with the seriousness and care it deserves,” Obama said.
Garland would become the fourth Jewish member of the nine-member court. There are five Roman Catholics on the court. Obama considered but passed over Garland when he made two prior Supreme Court appointments.
Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell of Kentucky swiftly reiterated that the Senate will not consider the nomination by the Democratic president whose term ends next January.
“It seems clear that President Obama made this nomination not with the intent of seeing the nominee confirmed, but in order to politicize it for purposes of the election,” McConnell said on the Senate floor.
Garland is widely viewed as a moderate. He is a former prosecutor who served in the Justice Department under Democratic President Bill Clinton. He oversaw the prosecution in the 1995 Oklahoma City bombing case including securing the death penalty for the lead defendant, anti-government militant Timothy McVeigh.
In his current post, he is known for narrow, centrist opinions and rhetoric that is measured rather than inflammatory even when in dissent.
During the Rose Garden appearance, Garland referred to the Oklahoma City bombing case, saying, “Once again, I saw the importance of assuring victims and families that the justice system could work.”
Some cracks in McConnell’s strategy of completely shutting out the nominee were on display. A handful of Republican senators including Susan Collins, Kelly Ayotte and Jeff Flake said they would be willing to meet with Garland.
Collins added that she thought the Senate Judiciary Committee should hold confirmation hearings.
Judiciary Committee member Orrin Hatch, whose past support of Garland was cited by Obama, said the pick does not change his view “at this point” that no Obama nominee should be considered.
Like Ayotte facing a tough re-election fight in his home state this year, Senator Mark Kirk of Illinois said, “I will assess Judge Merrick Garland based on his record and qualifications.”
“Should Merrick Garland be nominated again by the next president, I would be happy to carefully consider his nomination,” said Senator Pat Toomey of Pennsylvania, also in a tough re-election battle.
Obama said he hoped the Senate would vote to confirm Garland in time for him to join the court when it gets to work for its 2016-1017 term in October, adding Garland would start meeting with senators one-on-one on Thursday.
“Presidents do not stop working in the final year of their term. Neither should a senator,” Obama added.
Obama called Garland one of America’s sharpest legal minds who possesses “a spirit of decency, modesty, integrity, even-handedness and excellence.”
“If Merrick Garland can’t get bipartisan support no one can,” Democratic Senator Charles Schumer said.
Standing in between Obama and Vice President Joe Biden during the Rose Garden ceremony, Garland told Obama it was a great privilege to be nominated to the high court by a fellow Chicagoan.
Garland was named to his current job by Democratic President Bill Clinton in 1997, winning Senate confirmation in a 76-23 vote.
Federal appeals court judge Sri Srinivasan had also been a finalist for the nomination.
Obama, in office since 2009, has already named two justices to the Supreme Court: Sonia Sotomayor, who at 55 became the first Hispanic justice in 2009, and Elena Kagan, who was 50 when she became the fourth woman ever to serve on the court in 2010.
Presidents tend to pick nominees younger than Garland, so they can serve for decades and extend a president’s legacy. But Obama may reason that the choice of an older nominee might also entice Senate Republicans into considering Obama’s selection.
Clinton called Garland “a nominee with considerable experience” and “a brilliant legal mind” and urged the Senate to move ahead with the confirmation process.