Washington - President Barack Obama nominated federal appeals court judge Merrick Garland to the Supreme Court on Wednesday, challenging Republicans to reject a long-time jurist and former prosecutor known as a moderate and a consensus builder.
Judge Garland showed emotion as he stood in the White House Rose Garden and shook hands with President Obama.
"Thank you Mr. President this is the greatest honor in my life, except Lynn agreeing to marry me 28 years ago," Garland said, gesturing to his wife and family sitting in the audience.
Garland, 63, shared what has guided him on his road from humble beginnings in Chicago, as the son of immigrants who fled anti-Semitism in Europe, to becoming top of his class at Harvard. Garland also finished his law degree at Harvard. He went on to make partner at a prestigious law firm, but gave it up to become a federal prosecutor and a judge.
"As my parents taught me by both words and deeds, a life of public service is as much a gift to the person who serves as it is to those he is serving," Garland said.
As a federal prosecutor, Garland led the Department of Justice prosecution in the Oklahoma City bombing. He was confirmed 76-23 with bipartisan support and praise from a majority in both parties, including seven current Republicans senators, when appointed judge in 1997 to the United States Court of Appeals for the District of Columbia Circuit, a court whose influence over federal policy and national security matters has made it a proving ground for potential Supreme Court justices.
"He or she must put aside his personal views or preferences and follow the law, not make it," Garland said, vowing to continue his philosophy if confirmed to the Supreme Court.
He would replace conservative, Justice Antonin Scalia, who died last month, leaving behind a bitter election-year fight over the future of the court.
"I simply ask Republicans in the Senate to give him a fair hearing and then an up or down vote," President Obama said.
Senate Republicans reiterated their refusal to hold confirmation hearings.
"The Biden Rule reminds us that the decision the Senate announced weeks ago remains about a principle, not a person," said Kentucky Senator Mitch McConnell, who called Garland Wednesday and said he would not meet with the nominee.
Republicans have repeatedly pointed to comments in 1992 when Vice-President Joe Biden, then a Senator, spoke against hearings during a presidential campaign.
In San Francisco, several law professors who worked with Garland at the Department of Justice had high praise for their former colleague.
"I've said for a while that Merrick Garland is without a doubt the best qualified guy. He's got such a long record of public service, and a totally transparent public record. Nobody, there's no skeletons in his closet," said U.C. Hastings Constitutional Law Professor Rory Little, who worked with Garland under then Attorney General Janet Reno.
John Trasvina, the Dean of the University of San Francisco School of Law also was a colleague during the Clinton administration and says Garland was skilled at building consensus, noting that even Chief Justice John Roberts had praised Garland's abilities.
"Judge Garland is one who I believe would take the time and work the relationships among the nine on the Supreme Court and work to build a majority," said Trasvina, "I think it's now up to the American people to let their Senators know what they think of Judge Garland, what they think of the prospect of shutting down the Judiciary, because that's what's at stake here."
Sen. Chuck Schumer of New York, the No. 3 Democratic leader called Garland's section, "a bipartisan choice," adding: "If the Republicans can't support him, who can they support?"
Senate Minority Leader Harry Reid, who spoke to Obama Wednesday morning, said in brief remarks on the Senate floor that Republicans must act on the president's choice. "He's doing his job this morning, they should do theirs," said the Nevada Democrat.
If confirmed, Garland would be expected to align with the more liberal members, but he is not viewed as down-the-line liberal. Particularly on criminal defense and national security cases, he's earned a reputation as centrist, and one of the few Democratic-appointed judges Republicans might have a fast-tracked to confirmation - under other circumstances.
But in the current climate, Garland remains a tough sell. Republicans control the Senate Judiciary Committee and the full Senate, which must confirm any nominee, and GOP leaders want to leave the choice to the next president, denying Obama a chance to alter the ideological balance of the court before he leaves office next January. Republicans contend that a confirmation fight in an election year would be too politicized.
Ahead of Obama's announcement, the Republican Party set up a task force that will orchestrate attack ads, petitions and media outreach. The aim is to bolster Senate Republicans' strategy of denying consideration of Obama's nominee. The party's chairman, Reince Priebus, described it as the GOP's most comprehensive judicial response effort ever.
On the other side, Obama allies have been drafted to run a Democratic effort that will involve liberal groups that hope an Obama nominee could pull the high court's ideological balance to the left. The effort would target states where activists believe Republicans will feel political heat for opposing hearings once Obama announced his nominee.
For Obama, Garland represents a significant departure from his past two Supreme Court choices. In nominating Sonia Sotomayor and Elena Kagan, the president eagerly seized the chance to broaden the court's diversity and rebalance the overwhelming male institution. Sotomayor was the first Hispanic confirmed to the court, Kagan only the fourth woman.
Garland, at 63 years old, he would be the oldest Supreme Court nominee since Lewis owell, who was 64 when he was confirmed in late 1971.
Presidents tend to appoint young judges with the hope they will shape the court's direction for as long as possible.
Those factors had, until now, made Garland something of a perpetual bridesmaid, repeatedly on Obama's Supreme Court lists, but never chosen.
But Garland found his moment at time when Democrats are seeking to apply maximum pressure on Republicans. A key part of their strategy is casting Republicans as knee-jerk obstructionists ready to shoot down a nominee that many in their own ranks once considered a consensus candidate. In 2010, Utah Sen. Orrin Hatch called Garland "terrific" and said he could be confirmed "virtually unanimously."
The White House planned to highlight Hatch's past support, as well as other glowing comments about Garland from conservatives.
Garland clerked for two appointees of Republican President Dwight D. Eisenhower - the liberal U.S. Supreme Court Justice William Brennan Jr. and Judge Henry J. Friendly, for whom Chief Justice John Roberts also clerked.
In 1988, he gave up a plush partner's office in a powerhouse law firms to cut his teeth in criminal cases. As an assistant U.S. attorney, he joined the team prosecuting a Reagan White House aide charged with illegal lobbying and did early work on the drug case against then-D.C. Mayor Marion Barry. He held a top-ranking post in the Justice Department when he was dispatched to Oklahoma City the day after bombing at the federal courthouse to supervise the investigation. The case made his career and his reputation. He oversaw the convictions of Timothy McVeigh and Terry Nichols, and went on to supervise the investigation into Unabomber Ted Kaczynski.
President Bill Clinton first nominated him to the D.C. Circuit in 1995.
His prolonged confirmation process may prove to have prepared him for the one ahead. Garland waited 2½ years to win confirmation to the appeals court. Then, as now, one of the man blocking path was Iowa Sen. Charles Grassley, argued he had no quarrel with Garland's credentials, but a beef with the notion of a Democratic president trying to fill a court he argued had too many seats.
Grassley ultimately relented, although he was not one of the 32 Republicans who voted in favor of Garland's confirmation. Nor was Sen. Mitch McConnell, the other major hurdle for Garland now. The Republicans who voted in favor of confirmation are Sen. Dan Coats, Sen. Thad Cochran, Sen. Susan Collins, Sen. Orrin Hatch, Sen. Jim Inhofe, Sen. John McCain, and Sen. Pat Roberts.
Five Republican Senators have not ruled out meeting with Garland as the process begins with a series of interviews Thursday in Washington D.C.
They include Sen. Susan Collins (R-Maine), Sen. Kelly Ayotte (R-N.H.), Sen. Rob Portman (R-Ohio), Sen. Jeff Flake (Ariz.) and Sen. James Inhofe (Okla.).