President Barack Obama announced Wednesday he is nominating Merrick Garland to serve on the Supreme Court, setting up a protracted political fight with Republicans who have vowed to block any candidate picked by the White House.
Garland, 63, is a longtime Washington lawyer and jurist who is chief judge of the U.S. Court of Appeals for the District of Columbia Circuit. Considered a moderate, Garland is widely respected in the D.C. legal community and was also a finalist for the first two Supreme Court vacancies Obama filled.
Seven sitting Republican senators voted to confirm Garland in 1997: Dan Coats, Ind., Thad Cochran, Miss., Susan Collins, Maine, Orrin Hatch, Utah, James M. Inhofe, Okla., John McCain, Ariz., and Pat Roberts, Kan.
GOP lawmakers, though, have said since Justice Antonin Scalia's death last month that Obama should leave the choice of a new justice to his successor and that they have no intention of holding a hearing or a vote on the president's pick.
Speaking on the Senate floor Tuesday afternoon, Judiciary Committee Chairman Charles E. Grassley, R-Iowa, said "the next Supreme Court justice could dramatically change the direction of the court" and Americans deserved to "weigh in" before that happens.
Garland is a Chicago native who graduated from Harvard College and Harvard Law School. After becoming a partner at the law firm Arnold & Porter, he joined the Justice Department, where he handled the drug investigation of then-D.C. Mayor Marion Barry as an assistant U.S. attorney in the District of Columbia.
Ascending the ranks, Garland became principal associate deputy attorney general, where he supervised the massive investigations that led to the prosecutions of the Unabomber and the bombers of the federal building in Oklahoma City.
Garland was appointed to the D.C. federal appeals court by President Bill Clinton in April 1997 and confirmed on a 76-to-23 vote. In February 2013, Garland became chief judge of the D.C. federal appeals court.
Jamie Gorelick, a former deputy attorney general who worked with Garland at the Justice Department in the Clinton administration, considers her former colleague "supremely qualified" for the high court.
Gorelick praised Garland's role at the Justice Department in supervising the Unabomber and Oklahoma City investigations.
"We had a lot of very seasoned prosecutors, but when you have a matter that is both substantively difficult and cuts across the department, a really talented person such as Merrick will lead those," said Gorelick. She added that Garland is a "brilliant lawyer and judge" who is known to be highly collegial even with colleagues across the ideological spectrum.
Initial reaction from interest groups supportive of the president was mixed. National Organisation for Women President Terry O'Neill praised Garland for " a rigorous intellect, impeccable credentials, and a record of excellence."
But she also said his record on women's rights was "more or less a blank slate. Equally unfortunate is that we have to continue to wait for the first African American woman to be named. For this nomination, the so-called political experts ruled that the best choice for the highest court in the nation was a cipher - a real nowhere man."
A four-page document circulated Tuesday afternoon among a small group of the administration's allies, with the heading, "Read What Republicans Had to Say About President Obama's Supreme Court Nominee, Merrick Garland, Before He Was President Obama's Supreme Court Nominee," highlighted the support he has enjoyed from lawmakers in the past.
"Garland has had a distinguished legal career, and prior to the GOP's historically unprecedented obstruction, was a favorite of Senate Republicans alongside progressives," the briefing material says. "When earlier Supreme Court vacancies occurred in the seats now filled by Justices Elena Kagan and Sonia Sotomayor, Utah Sen. Orrin Hatch said he would be 'very well supported by all sides' as a SCOTUS nominee."
The document notes that when Obama was filling the first Supreme Court vacancy of his tenure, Hatch was quoted at the time as saying that Garland would be a "consensus nominee" who "would be very well supported by all sides." The briefing material includes previous descriptions of Garland by leading news organizations as a potential nominee who would attract support of Democrats and Republicans alike.
Chief Justice John G. Roberts Jr., Garland's colleague on the D.C. Circuit, once said that "anytime Judge Garland disagrees, you know you're in a difficult area."
Democrats are also preparing to make the Republicans' opposition to filling the vacancy an issue in the fall election. Speaking in West Palm Beach, Fla., on Tuesday night, Democratic presidential front-runner Hillary Clinton said in her victory speech that one of the reasons the presidential race matters so much is because the Supreme Court appointment has such enormous policy implications.
"Together, we have to defend all of our rights - civil rights and voting rights, worker's rights and women's rights, LGBT rights and rights for people with disabilities - and that starts by standing with President Obama when he nominates a justice to the Supreme Court," she said, prompting large cheers from the crowd.
While the question of who sits on the nation's highest court is not traditionally a top-tier election issue, Democrats are hoping to use it as part of a broader narrative about Republican resistance to the president's policies.
David Greenberg, a professor of history and journalism and media studies at Rutgers University, noted that Richard Nixon first elevated the Supreme Court as an electoral issue in 1968, when he attacked then-Chief Justice Earl Warren and his fellow justices.
"It was putting a liberal-dominated court at the center of the liberal establishment he was attacking," Greenberg said, for "bringing about all these cultural changes" in the country.
At the moment, more Americans appear to be sympathetic to the White House's argument. Sixty-three percent of Americans said the Senate should hold hearings on Obama's nominee to replace Scalia, while 32 percent said it should not hold hearings and leave it to the next president, according to a Washington Post-ABC News poll released last week. Majorities of Democrats and independents supported holding hearings, while Republicans were more evenly split (46-49) and over half of conservative Republicans said hearings should not be held (54 percent).
Administration officials are hopeful that the GOP senators who are most vulnerable this November - Sens. Kelly Ayotte, N.H., Ron Johnson, Wis., Mark Kirk, Ill., and Pat Toomey, Penn. - may lobby their leaders for a vote if they come under fire back home for blocking the nominee.
"The success or failure of this will depend on the pressure that can be brought to bear on those senators who Mitch McConnell marched out to the firing line," said one former senior administration official, who asked for anonymity in order to discuss internal White House deliberations.