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Meet Merrick Garland: Next Justice or Historical Footnote?

Nominee sacrificed comic book collection, stocked shoes to get ahead

Garland’s engaging personal story and legal qualifications might not be enough to win a seat on the high court. (Chip Somodevilla/Getty Images)
Garland’s engaging personal story and legal qualifications might not be enough to win a seat on the high court. (Chip Somodevilla/Getty Images)

Supreme Court nominee Merrick Garland, at first glance, does not fit some of the criteria that presidents often use in selecting a high court pick. For one, there is the matter of his once-beloved comic book collection.  

President Barack Obama noted during a White House ceremony on Wednesday that, “in law enforcement circles and in the legal community at large, Judge Garland needs no introduction.” But Garland’s path to the Rose Garden had some surprising twists and turns — and ample examples of how he became something of a judicial grinder. The 63-year-old chief judge of the U.S. Court of Appeals for the District of Columbia Circuit is from Obama’s hometown, Chicago, born to a father who owned a small business and a mother who volunteered in their local community.  

“Inheriting that work ethic, Merrick became valedictorian of his public high school. He earned a scholarship to Harvard, where he graduated summa cum laude,” Obama said.  

The nominee credited his family for his path to becoming a high court pick. His grandparents left the Pale of Settlement at the border of Western Russia and Eastern Europe in the early 1900s, fleeing anti-Semitism, and hoping to make a better life for their children in America, he said.  

His father was “always impressing upon me the importance of hard work and fair dealing,” Garland said. His mother, head of the local parent-teacher association and school board and a director of a volunteer services agency, instilled “the understanding that service to the community is a responsibility above all others.”  

Garland put himself through Harvard Law School by tutoring other students and stocking shoes at a local store — perhaps that tedious work helped influence his style on the bench. After all, one senior White House official described him as a “meticulous jurist.”  

But tutoring and keeping footwear on the shelves didn’t quite pay law school student’s bills.  

“In what is always a painful moment for any young man,” Obama disclosed, Garland dealt with his financial situation “by selling his comic book collection.”  

“It’s tough,” the commander-in-chief continued with a shake of his head. “Been there.”  

The roots of such tough decisions can be traced to Niles West High School in a Chicago suburb, where he was valedictorian and head of the student council.  

Classmate James Donenberg told the Chicago Tribune that Garland’s stint on the school’s debate team might have best prepared him for his legal career.  

“He’s always been a person who wants to look at every side of an issue,” Donenberg told the Tribune. “He wants to understand things, all points of view. He tries not to be judgmental in that sense. He’s very fair-minded about everything.”  

Selling his comic book collection wasn’t the last tough decision he would have to make, nor the final career sacrifice.  

Garland eventually joined a high-profile law firm Arnold & Porter, where he became a partner in just four years — which is, as Obama put it, “the dream of most lawyers.”  

That didn’t satisfy Garland, who several months later left what the president described as “a comfortable and lucrative law practice” to take a low-level position as a federal prosecutor in the George H.W. Bush administration.  

In fact, he took a 50 percent pay cut and traded what Obama described as “his elegant partner’s office” for a “windowless closet that smelled of stale cigarette smoke.”  

“This was a time when crime here in Washington had reached epidemic proportions and he wanted to help,” Obama said. “And he quickly made a name for himself going after corrupt politicians and violent criminals.”  

Those life experiences seem to have demonstrated to Obama that the senior appellate judge with the bright white hair would be the right choice now in an unprecedented time of partisanship and acrimony.  

He’s 63, which means his tenure could be shorter than some of the candidates in their 40s whom Obama also reportedly considered. He is white, Ivy League-educated and Jewish — which would not exactly diversify the court.  

The personal sketch of a mild-mannered man, devoted husband and father and methodical jurist could conjure up a mental image for some of their favorite grandfather or uncle. An unusually meticulous one, perhaps.  

Consider that he once studied a high school yearbook on a plane while traveling to his 30th reunion.  

“It’s an example of Merrick’s incredible thoroughness and his real desire to be able to connect with people,” a friend, Sandy Blechman, told the Washington Post. At the reunion, Garland circulated through the room, greeting people by name. “He was able to impress everyone. And we couldn’t — because we hadn’t done our homework.”  

But Garland’s engaging personal story and legal qualifications might not be enough to win a seat on the high court. On Wednesday, even as some cracks in Republicans’ wall of opposition became evident, Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell, R-Ky., reiterated the chamber will only take up the qualifications of a nominee put forward by the next president.  

“And since the Senate will not be acting on this nomination,” a terse statement from McConnell’s office concluded, “he would not be holding a perfunctory meeting, but he wished Judge Garland well.”  

Contact Bennett at Follow him on Twitter @BennettJohnT.

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