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Defying Congressional GOP, Obama chooses D.C. judge for Supreme Court

March 16, 2016 at 7:57 PM EDT
The battle for the late Antonin Scalia’s spot on the Supreme Court began Wednesday, as President Obama officially announced his nomination: Merrick B. Garland, chief judge of the federal Court of Appeals for the District of Columbia Circuit. Obama was undeterred by Congressional Republican vows to ignore any Supreme Court nomination hearings until a new president has been elected.

GWEN IFILL: The battle was officially joined today over the vacancy on the U.S. Supreme Court. The president formally opened the fray, nominating the head of the federal appeals court for the District of Columbia.

PRESIDENT BARACK OBAMA: Today, I am nominating chief Judge Merrick Brian Garland to join the Supreme Court.

GWEN IFILL: The announcement was greeted with applause in the Rose Garden as the president hailed his nominee.

PRESIDENT BARACK OBAMA: Judge Garland has earned a track record of building consensus as a thoughtful, fair-minded judge who follows the law. He’s shown a rare ability to bring together odd couples, assemble unlikely coalitions, persuade colleagues with wide-ranging judicial philosophies to sign onto his opinions.

GWEN IFILL: That was calculated to make the case that Senate Republicans should at least give Garland a chance.

PRESIDENT BARACK OBAMA: To suggest that someone as qualified and respected as Merrick Garland doesn’t even deserve a hearing, let alone an up-or-down vote, to join an institution as important as our Supreme Court, when two-thirds of Americans believe otherwise, that would be unprecedented.

JUDGE MERRICK GARLAND, Supreme Court Nominee: This is the greatest honor of my life.

GWEN IFILL: The judge choked back tears as he thanked the president, and he seemed to make his own appeal.

JUDGE MERRICK GARLAND: Fidelity to the Constitution and the law has been the cornerstone of my professional life, and it’s the hallmark of the kind of judge I have tried to be for the past 18 years. If the Senate sees fit to confirm me to the position for which I have been nominated today, I promise to continue on that course.

GWEN IFILL: Garland is 63. He left private practice for the Justice Department in 1993, and oversaw its response to the Oklahoma City bombing. President Clinton then nominated him to the D.C. Circuit Court of Appeals. He was confirmed in 1997.

At the time, he drew praise from the likes of Republican Orrin Hatch, then chair of the Senate Judiciary Committee.

SEN. ORRIN HATCH (R), Utah: He belongs on the court. And I believe he is not only a fine nominee, but is as good as Republicans can expect from this administration. In fact, I would place him at the top of the list.

GWEN IFILL: That was then. This is now.

Now Garland is being nominated to replace conservative Justice Antonin Scalia, who died last month. Republicans fear that confirming him to the high court would create a liberal majority.

So, within minutes of the president’s announcement, Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell went to the Senate floor to double down on his pledge to deny the president as much as a hearing on his nominee.

SEN. MITCH MCCONNELL (R-KY), Majority Leader: The decision the Senate announced weeks ago remains about a principle and not a person, about a principle, and not a person. It seems clear that President Obama made this nomination not, not with the intent of seeing the nominee confirmed, but in order to politicize it for purposes of the election.

GWEN IFILL: On the presidential campaign trail, Republicans Ted Cruz and John Kasich seconded that notion, while Democrats Hillary Clinton and Bernie Sanders issued statements of support for Garland.

Still, that sentiment was far from universal, even among the president’s own party. Civil rights activists and progressives wanted an African-American woman or another minority nominee, possibly Indian-born federal appeals Judge Sri Srinivasan.

In a “NewsHour” interview today, White House senior adviser Valerie Jarrett explained the president’s thinking.

VALERIE JARRETT, Senior Advisor to President Obama: He’s nominated two women to the court before, one of them a Latino woman, so obviously he believes there are lots of people who are qualified. The question isn’t, is the person qualified? The question is, who is the best person for it?

In this instance, he made the judgment that that would be the chief judge.

GWEN IFILL: The White House says Judge Garland began making calls to senators this afternoon, and will go to Capitol Hill tomorrow for meet-and-greets. And in spite of the pushback, several Republicans have said they may meet with, if not vote for him.

We will have a closer look at Judge Garland and hear from both sides in the Senate after the news summary.