Nominee Garland smiles, stays quiet while in public view

AP News
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Posted: Apr 06, 2016 6:01 PM
Nominee Garland smiles, stays quiet while in public view

WASHINGTON (AP) — "Cubs or White Sox?"

As a circuit court judge, Merrick Garland is used to speaking at length on arcane legal topics. For now, baseball preference is about as complicated a question President Barack Obama's Supreme Court nominee — and Illinois native — will answer in public.

When he was nominated in March, Garland was eloquent and emotional as he stood in the Rose Garden with Obama and recounted his path toward becoming a Supreme Court nominee. Now, in meeting after Senate meeting, he smiles stiffly and utters pleasantries, if anything at all, while cameras focus in.

It's a thankless routine that every Supreme Court justice has to endure. It's beneficial for the senators, who can highlight their courtesy to voters back home. But for Garland, it may just be a matter of going through the motions: Unlike most nominees who have been in his position, Garland might not get the payoff at the end.

Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell, R-Ky., and Senate Judiciary Committee Chairman Charles Grassley, R-Iowa, have said there will be no hearings or votes on Garland's nomination, holding strong that voters should have a say in November's presidential election before the vacancy is filled. The death of Justice Antonin Scalia on Feb. 13 gave Obama a chance to make a third appointment to the high court, and the president chose Garland.

Garland is making the rounds despite the GOP opposition, visiting Democrats and a few Republican senators who have agreed to meet with him.

At his meeting Wednesday with Illinois' Richard Durbin, the No. 2 Democrat in the Senate, he answered the baseball question in front of the cameras by telling the senator he was a Cubs fan.

A day earlier, the routine was a bit more awkward.

Sen. Joe Manchin, D-W.Va., held a news conference while Garland sat next to him, and the nominee declined to respond publicly as questions were asked about his own record. He did quietly thank Manchin, however, when the senator said he didn't understand why Republican senators wouldn't meet with him.

During Garland's visit with Minnesota Sen. Al Franken, the former comedian joked with the judge, asking him if he faced the same crush of cameras, photographers and reporters with every visit. Garland nodded silently, keeping his smile steady for the cameras.

Garland doesn't say much because he doesn't want to further endanger his confirmation. He saves his comments for private questioning from senators, a few of whom have revealed his reactions to the process.

"I think the cameras specifically were quite overwhelming," Sen. Kirsten Gillibrand, D-N.Y., said after her meeting with Garland on March 30.

A week later, Garland is more of a seasoned pro.

"With the press coming in, I said I think there will be two waves," said Durbin, of the still photographers and then video cameras that would be crowding into the senator's office. "He said, 'Oh, I know all this now.'"

If Republicans have their way, Garland's grind will be for nothing. Though a few Republican senators have agreed to meet with him, most have said they won't, and McConnell and Grassley have shown no signs of budging. Democrats have said they may consider procedural maneuvers to try and force a vote on the Senate floor, but those tactics are unlikely to work.

Still, Democrats continue to pressure McConnell to move forward on the nomination, as have some Republicans. Illinois Sen. Mark Kirk, who met with Garland last week, circulated a memo Thursday encouraging his GOP colleagues to follow suit.

On Tuesday, Grassley escalated the fight by criticizing the entire Supreme Court, accusing the current court of being overly political and singling out Chief Justice John Roberts. Senate Democratic leader Harry Reid of Nevada came to the floor Wednesday to defend Roberts, who was appointed by Republican President George W. Bush but has faced the ire of conservatives since voting with a majority of the court to uphold Democrat Obama's health care law.

As senators argue over his nomination on the floor, Garland is continuing his visits. He's taking a break from hearing cases as chief judge of the U.S. Court of Appeals for the District of Columbia Circuit, and he has a full roster of Senate meetings this week and next.

He's unlikely to say much publicly, but he seems prepared. Manchin said Garland told him he's been in tougher situations. As a federal prosecutor, he oversaw the investigation and prosecutions in the 1995 Oklahoma City bombing case and the case against Unabomber Ted Kaczynski.

"He said he understands the process can be long, and be very contentious and arduous, he understands all that, and he's in it for the long haul," Manchin said.

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Follow Mary Clare Jalonick on Twitter at http://twitter.com/mcjalonick