Merrick Garland's straight and narrow path to the Supreme Court

The life and career of President Obama's nominee to the high court has been defined by compassion and a strong belief in judicial restraint.

J. Scott Applewhite/AP/File
Judge Merrick Garland, President Obama’s choice to replace the late Justice Antonin Scalia on the US Supreme Court, meets with Sen. Patrick Leahy (D) of Vermont, ranking member on the Senate Judiciary Committee, on Capitol Hill in Washington, March 17. From his first days at Harvard, Garland's classmates pegged him as a star. Smartest guy in the room, self-confident, easy-going and thoughtful are some of the compliments they still pay him 40 years later. For Judge Garland, the bonds formed at Harvard College and Harvard Law School have stayed with him and come into play during a career in private practice, as a prosecutor and on the bench.

Merrick Garland may be the most publicly scrutinized person in America at the moment, but some of his oldest friends and colleagues insist that the senators, political strategists, and journalists now picking through his decades-long legal career for holes, black marks, or even a whiff of partisanship, will end up disappointed.

All Mr. Garland has done since his days as an undergraduate, they say, is follow a straight and narrow path that, combined with his compassion and tremendous legal intellect, was inevitably going to lead him to where he is now: President Obama's choice to fill a vacancy on the US Supreme Court. 

From his high school days outside of Chicago, to Harvard College and Harvard Law School, on through his legal career in private practice, as a prosecutor and on the bench of the D.C. Circuit Court of Appeals, where he now serves as chief judge, Garland has navigated controversies from the school dress code to the Vietnam War with the same evenhanded aplomb.

"This is something he has modestly prepared himself for his whole career," Elliot Gerson, a friend of Garland's from Harvard College who now oversees the US Rhodes Scholarships, told The Associated Press of his friend's surprise nomination earlier this month.

Garland's nomination was a surprise in many respects. With the death of Justice Antonin Scalia in February, a conservative stalwart of the Court, Mr. Obama had the opportunity to nominate someone who could maintain a liberal majority on the high court for decades. Many were expecting a younger nominee with a liberal track record. What they got was an older nominee with a history of sincere centrism and commitment to judicial restraint.

That hasn't prevented experts from both ends of the political spectrum speculating on Garland's partisan leanings.

Daniel Horowitz, senior editor of the Conservative Review, tweeted the day of Garland’s nomination that he would “be the 5th vote to overturn the Second Amendment.” That same day, in Rolling Stone, David S. Cohen wrote that Garland "could become Democrats' David Souter," referring to the justice appointed by President George H.W. Bush who ended up disappointing Republicans by consistently voting in favor of abortion rights, affirmative action, and other issues.

"In Merrick Garland, Democrats have to be worried about the same problem, just with opposite politics," added Mr. Cohen. "Garland has no track record on some of the big issues of constitutional law.... He could indeed be a moderate or liberal on these issues – or he could be a conservative and vote against abortion rights and other liberal positions."

His old friends and colleagues, however, contend that his political leanings have evolved from strict impartiality to a fierce legal philosophy that the judiciary should have a restrained role in lawmaking.

One of the more controversial positions Garland took as president of his high school's student council was to allow students to wear shorts to the unairconditioned school final exams, The Washington Post reported. At Harvard he kept his political views to himself, even as the country roiled over issues from civil rights to the Vietnam War.

"He was not an ideological activist or outlier in any way," Kate Stith-Cabranes, a classmate at Harvard Law School who is now a law professor at Yale, told AP.

Susan Estrich, another law school classmate and now a well-known political operative, remembered Garland for helping her after her father’s death.

"My entire social life that summer consisted of Merrick looking out for me, including me, inviting me, knowing that I had been through a terrible time that spring," she told AP.

In law school, Garland took a deep interest in constitutional law and the role of the courts, and he has become a model for judicial restraint that experts say made him especially attractive to Obama.

A judge "must put aside his personal views and preferences and follow the law—not make it," Garland said on the day he was nominated.

And his track record suggests Garland has followed this course.

Tom Goldstein of SCOTUSblog noted Garland's long history of deference to federal agencies. Jeffrey Rosen, who has known Garland throughout his 19 years as a D.C. Circuit judge, wrote for the Atlantic that the judge is "the embodiment of bipartisan judicial restraint."

Garland also has a history of compassion and empathy that Obama highlighted as one of his key reasons he nominated the judge, praising him as "thoughtful, fair minded" with an "insistence that all views deserve a respectful hearing."

"In this polarized age, and on this polarized Court," wrote Mr. Rosen, "it's hard to imagine more urgently needed qualities in a Supreme Court justice."

Material from The Associated Press was used in this report.

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