Merrick Garland grew up Jewish in Chicago suburbs of Skokie, worked his way to Harvard Law School and investigated the Oklahoma City bombing as a federal prosecutor.
The “mensch” of a jurist with a most un-Jewish sounding name and a sterling reputation for fairness won a coveted spot on the Washington D.C. court of appeals and rose to lead that prestigious court.
After twice being passed over for the Supreme Court, he is now aiming to become an unprecedented fourth Jew on the nine-member top court.
“He’s a total mensch,” said Jay Michaelson, a Forward columnist who once clerked for Garland. “He really wanted to get the law right.”
Garland’s first cousin, Marty Shukert, an urban designer in Omaha, Nebraska, said it was “almost dreamlike” to see Garland nominated by President Obama.
Garland called the nomination “the greatest honor of my life,” in a carefully scripted roll-out to the nation.
Recounting his Jewish family’s battle with persecution, Garland made an emotional pitch for the job he has coveted for decades.
“My grandparents left the Pale of Settlement…in the early 1900’s, fleeing anti-Semitism and hoping to make a better life for their children in America,” Garland told reporters in the Rose Garden, flanked by President Obama and Vice President Joe Biden.
A judicial moderate, Garland is being nominated to fill the spot of Antonin Scalia, who died suddenly last month.
Republicans have vowed not to consider any pick by Obama, citing the upcoming presidential election in the fall. But perhaps in a nod to the near-universal respect that Garland commands, some GOP senators signalled a willingness to consider him.
Garland was raised in Chicago by Jewish parents in a Conservative Jewish community. His mother, born Shirley Horowitz, worked as director of volunteer services at Chicago’s Council for Jewish Elderly. She is still living. His father, Cyril Garland, an advertising executive, died in 2000.
Garland said his father, who ran a business out of the family home’s basement, impressed upon him the “importance of hard work and fairness,” and his mother’s volunteer work taught him the importance of community service.
He was the valedictorian of his class at Niles West High School in the predominantly Jewish suburb of Skokie. During the ceremony, he stood up at his graduation to defend the right of an anti-war students to speak out.
“If you’re trying to gain any perspective on what type of person this man is, that would be it right there,” classmate Doug Mann told the Chicago Sun-Times.
Garland’s wife, born Lynn Rosenman, is also Jewish. Her grandfather, Samuel I. Rosenman, was Franklin D. Roosevelt’s most important Jewish advisor during the Second World War. Their marriage was performed by Rabbi Charles Lippman, a Reform rabbi. They have two children.
“I found Merrick Garland to be culturally, though not religiously Jewish, but inspired by the highest values of our ethical and social justice traditions,” said Michaelson, who clerked for Garland on the Court of Appeals in 1998 and 1999.
If confirmed, Garland would join fellow Jews Elena Kagan, Stephen Breyer, and Ruth Bader Ginsburg as Supreme Court Justices. The other five Justices are Catholics.
A graduate of Harvard Law School, Garland, 63, clerked for Supreme Court Justice William Brennan. At the Justice Department, Garland oversaw the investigation and prosecution of the Oklahoma City Bombing. He was confirmed to the D.C. Circuit Court in 1997 by a lopsided vote.
In a morning announcement on March 16, President Obama appeared alongside Garland and Vice President Joe Biden to announce his nomination of Garland. Obama called Garland “someone who brings to his work a spirit of decency, modesty, integrity, evenhandedness, and excellence.”
Obama emphasized Garland’s humble roots, and his role overseeing the investigation of the Oklahoma City Bombing for the Justice Department, speaking at length about Garland’s careful approach and his personal investment in the victim’s experiences. Obama also cited Republican support for Garland’s 1997 confirmation to the D.C. Court of Appeals.
“His life experience…informs his view that life is more than an intellectual exercise,” Obama said. “Throughout his jurisprudence runs a common thread: A dedication to protecting the rights of every American.”
“He is the right man for the job,” Obama said. “He deserves to be confirmed.”
While waiting to speak, Garland stood with his hands clasped before him, watching the president and blinking in the bright sun. “This is the greatest honor of my life, other than Lynn agreeing to marry me 28 years ago,” Garland said, choking back tears.
“As my parents taught me, by both words and deeds, a life of public services is as much a gift to the person who serves as it is to those he’s serving,” Garland said.
“Fidelity to the constitution and the law has been the cornerstone of my professional life,” Garland said. To Obama, he said: “I am grateful beyond words for the honor you have bestowed me.”
If Garland is confirmed to the Supreme Court, he could upset a decades-long status quo that has given conservatives a majority on the high court. Republicans have, so far, expressed little willingness to allow such a change; insisting that they will not approve any nominee to fill Scalia’s seat until the election.
Garland’s centrism, and his long history as a potential Supreme Court nominee, could complicate the Senate Republican’s stand. Utah Republican Orrin Hatch, a senior member of the Senate Judiciary Committee, called Garland a “consensus nominee” in 2010.
Republicans had almost unanimously backed the idea of refusing to cooperate with any appointee of Obama.
But some GOP senators signalled a willingness to consider Garland while others appeared to float compromise that would allow them to vote to confirm him in a lame-duck session after the November election.
Jewish groups pushed for action.
“We encourage our elected Senators to carefully and thoughtfully consider Judge Garland’s nomination,” said David Bernstein, president and CEO of the Jewish Council for Public Affairs.
This story "Can Merrick Garland, Fair-Minded ‘Mensch’ of a Judge, Win Spot on the Supreme Court?" was written by Josh Nathan-Kazis.
Josh Nathan-Kazis is a staff writer for the Forward. He covers charities and politics, and writes investigations and longform.