What kind of judge is Supreme Court nominee Merrick Garland?

On March 16, President Obama announced his pick for the Supreme Court vacancy left by the death of Justice Antonin Scalia: Merrick Garland, chief judge of the Court of Appeals for the DC Circuit.

The President described Garland as not only “one of America’s sharpest legal minds,” but also “someone who brings to his work a spirit of decency, modesty, integrity, even-handedness and excellence.”

Chief Judge for the past three years, Garland was confirmed by a bipartisan vote to the D.C. Circuit in 1997. He even received the support of several prominent Republicans, including Sen. Orrin Hatch.

But that was then.

Now, both sides of the political spectrum are mobilizing their supporters for what promises to be a brutal slog – and that’s just to determine whether the Senate should act on the nomination.

In the meantime, we might as well get to know the jurist they’re fighting over.

Judicial philosophy

Having been on the bench for so long, Garland has written over 300 opinions, and joined many more. So court watchers will be kept busy trying to unpack his judicial philosophy.

Based on an initial review of his body of work, Garland appears to deserve his label of “moderate.” His opinions are careful and meticulous. He is courteous to dissenting judges, and has authored few dissents himself.

Because of his background as a prosecutor – most notably on the Oklahoma City bomber case – he is seen as fair, but not overly liberal in criminal cases.

Judge Garland does not appear to have written court opinions about abortion, affirmative action, or the death penalty. Much of this is due to the caseload in the DC Circuit, which is heavier on agency action, federal regulations, and the like.

He has not directly taken part in cases dealing with gun control, although he voted to have a decision striking down Washington DC’s gun control law re-heard by the full Circuit. This vote was duly noted by the National Review, and will most likely be taken as a sign of unfriendliness towards the gun lobby.

But most of Judge Garland’s opinions don’t seem terribly controversial. He usually takes a sensible approach, like ruling that the State Department can’t fire someone for turning 65 just because they’re working abroad, or that requiring an employee to make up time spent in aerobics class doesn’t mean she was being unlawfully discriminated against.

And unlike the colorful, vituperative language of Justice Scalia, Garland’s sense of humor is best described as dry.