President Obama’s nominee to fill the late Justice Antonin Scalia’s seat on the U.S. Supreme Court was a key figure in the federal government’s investigation into the Oklahoma City bombing. Merrick Garland moved to Oklahoma immediately after the terrorist attack.
During his speech announcing the nomination to the U.S. Supreme Court, Obama said Garland had a sterling record as a prosecutor with the U.S. Department of Justice. In 1995, he oversaw every aspect of the federal response to the bombing of the Alfred P. Murrah Federal Building.
“He worked side-by-side with first responders, rescue workers, local and federal law enforcement,” Obama said.
The president highlighted the way Garland led the prosecution, and the meticulous and painstaking effort to do everything above board.
“When people offered to turn over evidence voluntarily, he refused – taking the harder route of obtaining the proper subpoenas instead, because Merrick would take no chances that someone who murdered innocent Americans might go free on a technicality,” Obama said.
Stephen Jones, the lead defense attorney for convicted bomber Timothy McVeigh, said Garland was someone who wanted to play by the book.
“The idea that if you are following the correct procedures and the codes and the rules, that your chances of misunderstanding or misadventure or a mistake are significantly reduced,” Jones said.
Jones and Garland interacted frequently during the initial three months between McVeigh’s arrest and the indictment. Even though the two were on opposite sides of the courtroom during the bombing trial, Jones agreed with the president’s assessment of Garland.
“He clearly showed maturity,” Jones said. “He was aware of some of the very difficult questions that were involved in the case. And he instantly understood all of the issues involved in the case that we dealt with him on.”
President Obama said Merrick Garland made a significant effort to reach out to the victims of the Oklahoma City bombing. He was on the ground in downtown Oklahoma City before all the victims had been recovered.
“I saw up close the devastation that can happen when someone abandons the justice system as a way of absolving grievances, and instead takes matters into his own hands,” Garland said.
Garland wanted to make sure the federal government brought McVeigh and co-conspirator Terry Nichols to justice in a way that honored the Constitution.
“The people of Oklahoma City gave us their trust, and we did everything we could to live up to it,” Garland said.
Stephen Jones has been active in Republican politics since the 1960s. But he thinks Garland would be a moderate centrist jurist, taking on a similar role to Justice Anthony Kennedy, who’s widely viewed as a swing vote. Jones called both Garland’s judicial and law enforcement record “flawless,” and said the only thing that would doom the nomination would be political considerations.
“Sometimes those come back to haunt us. Who knows what will happen in November? Who knows what will happen at the conventions?” Jones said. “So if you approach it as a Senator should, and weigh the merits and advise and consent, then Merrick Garland should have no problem.”
Garland is no stranger to political limbo. President Bill Clinton originally nominated Garland to the U.S. Court of Appeals for the D.C. Circuit in 1995, but that stalled until Clinton won reelection in 1996. He renominated Garland to the appeals court in 1997, and that was confirmed on a 76-23 vote. Oklahoma’s Jim Inhofe is one of seven current Republican Senators who voted for Garland then, and he issued a statement Wednesday saying he’ll evaluate Garland’s nomination. But he acknowledged the politics on the Senate floor last week, and he wants the next president to fill the high court vacancy.
“I don’t blame any Democrat for trying his best to get a nominee from this president, because as a Democrat they are more liberal than Republicans are,” Inhofe said. “And they would like very much to have a chance to change the balance of the United States Supreme Court.”
Oklahoma’s junior Republican Senator James Lankford launched a social media campaign on Monday he’s calling “Fact versus Fiction” about the Constitutional roles of the executive and legislative branches when there are court vacancies. He called it a 50/50 split.
“The President shall nominate. That is his responsibility. But that only moves forward with the advice and consent of the United States Senate. There's no shall give consent. There's no requirement of how it moves,” Lankford said during a floor speech. “In fact, Alexander Hamilton in The Federalist Papers discussing this exact issue, said the ordinary power of appointment is confided to the President and the Senate jointly.”
Both Senators say rushing through a nominee doesn’t make sense, since the vacancy wouldn’t be filled during the spring session, and the new justice would only be able to hear arguments during the fall term in the final few months before November’s election.