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Get to Know Merrick Garland, Obama's Supreme Court Nominee

By Casey C. Sullivan, Esq. | Last updated on

And it's Garland. After a month of speculation, President Obama upset many oddsmakers and nominated Chief Judge of the D.C. Circuit, Merrick Garland, for the Supreme Court. Garland is a bit of a surprise -- he's older, whiter, and more centrist than some of the others under consideration -- but he's also a widely respected jurist, a pick designed to frustrate Senate opposition.

Here's what you need to know about the potential Supreme Court justice, Merrick Garland.

From Chicago to Harvard to (Maybe) the Supreme Court

Garland doesn't break much new ground when it comes to Supreme Court diversity. A Chicago native, he went to Harvard for undergrad and law school. (President Obama portrayed this as a bit of a rags to robes story in his nominating speech, noting that Garland earned a scholarship to Harvard and sold his comic book collection to help pay for law school.) As a white man, Garland wouldn't make the same sort of demographic impact that say, Sri Srinivasan or Kentaji Brown Jackson would, but he would be the Court's fourth Jewish justice.

Career-wise, he has all the makings of a Supreme Court justice. Garland clerked for Judge Friendly after law school, then went on to clerk under Justice Brennan. He was in private practice for a few years, but left to work for the Department of Justice, almost immediately after becoming partner. In 1995 he was nominated for the D.C. Circuit but was confirmed only after a two year delay. Garland became Chief Judge of that circuit just a few years ago, in 2013.

Garland's Judicial Philosophy: Khaki

If Garland has a distinctive judicial philosophy, it's pretty moderate: deciding cases narrowly, close attention to the law, deference to agency decisions, and polite collegiality. As MSNBC's Chief Legal Correspondent Ari Melber puts it, Garland's record "is careful to the point of dry, measured and minimalist even on hot issues."

That was something noted six years ago, when Garland was last considered as a Supreme Court nominee -- and passed over when President Obama nominated Elena Kagan instead. Tom Goldstein wrote at the time:

Certainly, to the extent that the President's goal is to select a nominee who will articulate a broad progressive vision for the law, Judge Garland would be a very unlikely candidate to take up that role.

When it comes to flair and style, Judge Garland tends to keep it to the margins.

But, that middle-of-the-road attitude has worked so far, gaining Garland supporters from across the political spectrum. As Chief Judge of the D.C. Circuit, he's also become one of the most important feeder judges for Supreme Court clerks, sending many of his own clerks off to work with both conservative and liberal Supreme Court Justices.

Whether that record of broad support will help Garland out now remains to be seen.

Nomination Fight, Round II

Garland, though a generally soft-spoken man, is no stranger to nomination battles. In fact, his nomination to the Supreme Court largely mirrors his earlier nomination fight. When Garland was put forward for the D.C. Circuit, in 1995, his nomination was stalled by Senate Republicans. It was not Garland they objected to. Instead, the dispute involved whether the twelfth seat on the D.C. Circuit should be filled at all.

That fight was led in part by Senator Chuck Grassley. Now, Grassley sits as chair of the Senate Judiciary Committee and is again opposed to filling a court vacancy. The last time the two faced off, it took Garland two nominations and a three month battle to get to the bench. But he made it. We'll see if he has an easier time this round.

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