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Why Merrick Garland nomination comes down to person vs. principle

President Obama wants the Senate to focus on the merits of Merrick Garland, the well-regarded chief judge of the D.C. Circuit Court of Appeals. Republicans want to focus on having the next president choose the nominee.

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    Appeals Court Judge Merrick Garland speaks in the Rose Garden of the White House after being nominated by President Barack Obama to the US Supreme Court in Washington March 16.
    Kevin Lamarque/Reuters
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The coming battle over President Obama’s Supreme Court nominee might be summed up in three words: person versus principle.

That’s because Mr. Obama wants this political fight to focus on the qualifications and personality of federal judge Merrick Garland, his pick to fill the vacant seat of the late Supreme Court Justice Antonin Scalia. The relatively moderate Judge Garland is well regarded on both sides of the ideological aisle: In 1997, 32 Republican senators voted to confirm him to his current position as chief judge of the federal D.C. Circuit Court of Appeals. Seven of those GOP lawmakers are still serving.

Republicans want the focus to remain instead on a principle – namely, their insistence that the next Supreme Court nominee be appointed by whoever wins the November presidential election. They don’t want to get dragged into discussing a particular person, for worry that it would make it difficult for the GOP to keep a united front against considering the nomination at all.

In that context, Garland might be the Republicans’ nightmare. Or if not a nightmare, a little disquiet at bedtime, at the least.

Obama appears to have chosen a nominee calculated to put lots of pressure on Republicans to agree to personal meetings and/or a confirmation hearing. He could have picked a liberal firebrand intended to fire up Democrats for the November vote, but he didn’t.

For one thing, Garland is not a long-term replacement for Justice Scalia. At 63, he is the oldest Supreme Court nominee in 40 years. He would not add a liberal vote to the high court balance for a generation.

Not that he’s considered a far lefty. Many GOP senators praised him on the floor during his 1997 hearings. Some currently describe him as a fine judge.

He’s also a native Midwesterner (Illinois), meaning he could bring some geographical diversity to a court where all other members, except Chief Justice John Roberts, hail from a state with an ocean coastline.

But in other ways Garland might be more of the same-old. He’s a white male with a Harvard Law degree – not exactly a résumé in short supply at the court.

And for Republicans, he might violate another principle – the one where they try to keep the high court as conservative as possible. While he’s not a liberal, he’s not a conservative in the mold of Scalia, either. By some measures he’d be the third-most liberal justice on the court if confirmed.

Given the stakes inherent in Supreme Court decisions, that’s why the Senate GOP is committed to delay, delay. They’re trying to head off any Democratic replacement for Scalia, if at all possible. For that they’re willing to take their chances with an electoral roll of the dice – even if it might produce President Trump.

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