Since a Supreme Court nomination only requires a simple majority vote and Democrats now control the Senate, Garland’s confirmation as attorney general is all but assured.
Nearly five years ago, Merrick Garland had one of the most significant experiences any person in the field of law will ever have: he was nominated to be a United States Supreme Court Justice.
In the final year of his presidency, President Barack Obama nominated Garland to replace the recently deceased Justice Antonin Scalia.
However, Garland’s nomination was never taken up by the Republican-controlled Senate and he was blocked from the seat. Just over a year later, with Garland’s nomination expired, Obama’s successor, President Donald Trump, nominated Neil Gorsuch, who was quickly confirmed by the Senate.
Now, while Garland will likely never get a second chance to serve on the highest court in the land, his legal career is far from over. Before he even took office, President Joe Biden announced he was nominating Garland to be the next US attorney general.
Garland’s confirmation in the Senate is facing a delay from Republican Senator Tom Cotton. However, since a Supreme Court nomination only requires a simple majority vote and Democrats now control the Senate, Garland’s confirmation as AG is all but assured. Here is what you need to know about Merrick Garland, the next man to likely lead the Department of Justice.
The legal career of Merrick Garland
Merrick Brian Garland was born in 1952 and grew up in Lincolnwood, Illinois, a suburb of Chicago. He is the son of Cyril Garland, who worked in advertising, and Shirley, who oversaw volunteer services at the Council for Jewish Elderly. His grandparents were Jewish immigrants from the Russian Empire who fled to escape antisemitic persecution.
Following his graduation as valedictorian from high school, Garland received a scholarship to study at Harvard University. He graduated summa cum laude with a Bachelor of Arts in social studies in 1974. He then attended Harvard Law School where he completed a law degree in 1977.
The next two years of Garland’s life were spent in clerkships for Second Circuit Judge Henry Friendly and Supreme Court Justice William J. Brennan. In 1979, he became a special assistant to then-Attorney General Benjamin Civiletti.
Two years later, Garland entered private practice when he joined the Washington, DC-based law firm Arnold & Porter. His focus at the firm was corporate litigation. In 1985, he became a partner at the firm. At the same time, Garland was teaching at Harvard Law School.
After eight years with the firm, Garland opted to return to public service and joined the US Attorney’s office as a prosecutor. That would lead to Garland becoming a deputy assistant attorney general in the Justice Department’s criminal division in 1993, during the first term of President Bill Clinton. A year later, he became the principal deputy to then-Deputy Attorney General Jamie Gorelick.
During that time, some of Garland’s most notable cases involved investigations into multiple bombings: the mail bombings of Ted Kaczynski (aka “The Unabomber”), the 1995 Oklahoma City bombing by Timothy McVeigh and Terry Nichols and the 1996 Olympic Games bombing in Atlanta, Georgia, by Eric Rudolph.
In 1995, Clinton nominated Garland to serve on the US Court of Appeals for the DC Circuit. Garland’s nomination was held up for more than a year and a half by Republican senators but in 1997 he was finally confirmed. In 2013, Garland became the Chief Justice of the US Court of Appeals for the DC Circuit, a role he served in until he stepped down in February 2020.
Garland married his wife, Lynn, in 1987. The couple have two daughters.
Merrick Garland’s nomination for the Supreme Court
When Obama nominated Garland to the Supreme Court in March 2016, the president said of him, “Throughout his career, Chief Judge Garland has shown a rare ability to bring people together and has earned the respect of everyone he has worked with. Chief Justice John Roberts, Garland’s colleague on the DC Circuit, once said that ‘anytime Judge Garland disagrees, you know you’re in a difficult area.’”
At the time of Garland’s nomination, NPR described him as “a moderate liberal, with a definite pro-prosecution bent in criminal cases. Indeed, his views in the area of criminal law are considerably more conservative than those of the man he would replace, Justice Antonin Scalia.”
It was believed Obama chose Garland precisely because he was a moderate choice and would therefore be more appealing to Republicans.
However, Senate Republicans, led by then-Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell, had already vowed not to take up any Supreme Court nomination before the presidential election was decided later that year. McConnell held firm, insisting that voters in 2016 should be allowed to decide who would pick the next justice.
McConnell’s decision to not even consider Garland’s nomination sparked anger in 2016, but it became even more of a contentious choice in late 2020 when McConnell held confirmation hearings for Amy Coney Barrett, Trump’s nominee to replace the recently deceased Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg. Barrett was confirmed to the bench a week before the 2020 election.
His willingness to vote for a Republican nominee but not a Democratic nominee came to be known as the “McConnell Rule.” McConnell justified the apparent hypocrisy by saying that, since the Republican Party controlled both the Senate and the presidency, the American people had spoken.
Merrick Garland’s views
On March 1, the Senate Judiciary Committee, led by Democratic Senator Dick Durbin, voted 15 to 7 to advance Garland’s nomination to the main Senate body. Now he will face questions from the full Senate on how he will oversee the Department of Justice.
“Democrats are trying to expedite Judge Garland’s confirmation vote,” Senator Cotton said in explaining his rationale for delaying the process. “I’m blocking them because Judge Garland has refused to answer basic questions.” Those questions relate to Garland’s views on several issues, views that would guide how he led the Justice Department.
At the time of his Supreme Court nomination, Garland was described as being “inscrutable,” with his personal politics unknown even to his close colleagues. What is known about him is that he is a respected legal mind with admirers on both sides of the aisle.
When Garland’s confirmation hearings do take place, Republicans like Cotton will press him on the few views that the former judge has expressed publicly. That includes his view that the death penalty has a “disparate impact on black Americans and members of other communities of color.”
Cotton has also said he wants Garland to provide clearer answers on immigration laws and gun control. During the Senate Judiciary Committee hearing, Garland did not provide specific answers on questions related to these matters, instead saying he needed to learn more about them specifically before giving an opinion.
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