On April 19, 1995, as the first reports came in about a bombing in Oklahoma City, some of the federal government’s top prosecutors gathered in the office of Merrick Garland – who at the time was the second-in-command to the Justice Department’s second-in-command.
Somebody turned on the TV.
“We saw bodies of those young children being pulled out of the rubble. It was enormously moving to us on many levels, including as parents of young children,” recalled Jamie S. Gorelick, Garland’s boss. All told, 19 children died in the explosion at the Alfred P. Murrah Federal Building – most of them killed in the building’s day-care center.
As they watched, Gorelick said, Garland told her, “You need to send me there.”
The request was granted.
Garland oversaw the massive prosecution that followed, showing a meticulous streak that had long set him apart, even among high-control prosecutors. He wore a suit and starched shirt in the building’s smoldering wreckage. He insisted on obtaining subpoenas for records – even when people were willing to hand them over without one – to insulate the government’s case against future appeals.
And when conspirator Timothy McVeigh was arraigned at a nearby Air Force base, Garland was so determined to run the case by the book that he literally brought the book with him everywhere. A former colleague remembered Garland carrying around a paperback version of the Federal Rules of Criminal Procedure.
“We needed to send someone who could assure that the investigation was perfect,” Gorelick said Wednesday. “And he did all of that.”
Garland, 63, now a longtime federal appeals court judge, was nominated Wednesday by President Barack Obama to fill the Supreme Court vacancy left by the death of Justice Antonin Scalia.
As he introduced Garland, Obama quoted the nominee as saying the Oklahoma City investigation was “the most important thing I have ever done in my life.”
It was a defining moment in Garland’s career, showcasing the intensity that had propelled him from the Chicago suburbs to a partner’s office at a high-powered D.C. law firm – and then out of that office to begin a new career in government as a low-level federal prosecutor in Washington in the early 1990s.
Speaking in the White House Rose Garden on Wednesday morning, Garland choked up with emotion at several moments. He said his grandparents had left Eastern Europe in the early 1900s to avoid anti-Semitic persecution and that his parents had instilled in him a desire for public service.
“I know that my mother is watching this on television and crying her eyes out,” Garland said. “I only wish that my father were here to see this today.” Garland’s father ran an advertising business out of the family basement – “the smallest of small businesses,” Garland said Wednesday. His father died in 2000.
Garland has been married for more than 25 years and has two daughters. He joked that he had taught his children to be adventurous – perhaps too well. “I only wish that we hadn’t taught my older daughter to be so adventurous that she would be hiking in the mountains, out of cell-service range, when the president called,” he said.
Garland has been a judge on the U.S. Court of Appeals for the District of Columbia Circuit since 1997 and has served as that court’s chief judge since 2013.
He has the résumé of a Supreme Court nominee out of central casting: Harvard College, Harvard Law, two clerkships, a stint in government service and now a long tenure at the prestigious appeals court that often serves as the Supreme Court’s waiting room.
But, twice before, Garland had been passed over.
In 2009, Obama considered him and then nominated Sonia Sotomayor, the first Hispanic justice. In 2010, Obama considered Garland before he chose Elena Kagan. In both cases, Democrats controlled the Senate, so Obama had leeway to choose a more liberal nominee.
Then, years passed. Sandee Blechman, a longtime friend, said Garland worried that – if another seat ever came open – he would be considered too old and a poor use of a lifetime appointment.
But this year, with Republicans promising to block anyone nominated by Obama, Garland’s deep résumé and centrist reputation appear to have positioned him well to earn the president’s nod.
“The one name that has come up repeatedly from Republicans and Democrats alike is Merrick Garland,” Obama said in the Rose Garden.
In his introduction, Obama noted that Garland had clerked for two judges appointed by President Dwight D. Eisenhower and that he had signed up as a federal prosecutor under President George H.W. Bush.
At the time of that switch, Garland was a partner in the Washington law firm of Arnold & Porter.
“He took a 50 percent pay cut . . . for a windowless closet [office] that smelled of stale cigarette smoke,” Obama said. In that position, as an assistant U.S. attorney in Washington, Garland worked on one of the city’s legendary criminal cases: the prosecution of then-Mayor Marion Barry on drug charges in 1990.
By the time of the Oklahoma City bombing in 1995, Garland had been promoted to the Justice Department’s headquarters. After he was dispatched on an FBI plane, Garland oversaw a huge operation set up in a mostly vacant Southwestern Bell Telephone Co. warehouse downtown.
He ran twice-daily briefings with as many as 30 law enforcement leaders: a touchy task, since many local police had been powerfully affected by the bombing and were reluctant to cede control to federal authorities from outside. “He was without swagger,” said a Justice Department colleague, J. Gilmore Childers.
At the same time, Garland was trying to learn how to run a huge bombing investigation. These cases were different than shootings or frauds. The crime scene, in this case, covered a huge swath of the city center.
“Like a sponge,” Childers said of Garland, recalling conversations between the two as they ate takeout in folding chairs.
Inside his court chambers, Garland is known for long work hours – 10- or 12-hour days are common, often beginning with Garland eating a bowl of cereal in his office. He also doesn’t like to play favorites.
Former clerks said this trait showed itself sometimes after a particularly tough oral argument, when Garland would ask them whether he had been too hard on an attorney. He would say, “How was my tone? Do you think I overstepped? Was I respectful enough?” recalled Danielle Gray, who clerked for Garland in 2003 and 2004.
The same desire for fairness applied even to interoffice small talk. One clerk recalled that if Garland happened to wander in to banter with one of the four clerks, that clerk would hit what they called the “banter button.”
It was really just a phone line to the other clerks’ office nearby, to alert them that there was lighthearted small talk to be shared.
“We would call the other clerks and say, ‘Come on over. We’re bantering,’ ” said one former clerk who asked not to be named. “Garland didn’t want anyone to feel left out.”
Garland has hosted annual potluck breakfasts for his ex-clerks, now including an Easter-egg hunt for their children. “Grand-clerks,” Garland calls them, according to one former clerk.
Garland has also hosted Passover Seder dinners at his home. One year, then-Attorney General Janet Reno was a guest. It was the night that the Justice Department was executing a search warrant at the Montana cabin of “Unabomber” Ted Kaczynski, an investigation that Garland was overseeing. At one point during the dinner, Garland and Reno stepped away to take a phone call with colleagues to discuss the latest developments.
Garland grew up in Lincolnwood, Illinois, a suburb in the North Shore along Lake Michigan, outside Chicago.
“He’s brilliant – always has been,” said Earl Steinberg, a friend who has known Garland since kindergarten and was best man at his wedding. “He was always the person voted most likely to succeed.”
Steinberg said Garland was president of the student council at his public high school, captain of the school’s quiz-bowl team and a star on the school debate team. He ran track, wrestled and appeared in school plays. He was also valedictorian of his class.
Steinberg recalled a story that Obama also recounted in the Rose Garden: Just before Garland was to speak at their graduation ceremony, another student delivered remarks condemning the Vietnam War and the plug to the microphone was pulled – apparently by an angry father in the crowd.
Then it was Garland’s turn to speak.
Barry Rosen, a lawyer who has been friends with Garland since the fifth grade, said: “All of us were murmuring, ‘How could this happen? How could this happen?’ None of the school officials stood up and objected, and the poor speaker had to sit down. So Merrick gets up, and the very first thing he says is about the importance of freedom of speech in America and how the strength of our country is the diversity of people’s views and our willingness to hear people and hear their views, and to address those views on their merits.”
“It was a stunning moment,” Rosen said. “Really one of the more amazing moments of life.” Rosen said Garland then went on to deliver his planned remarks – on the importance of voting in a democracy.
Garland arrived at Harvard intending to study medicine, said Steinberg, who roomed with him for four years there and became a doctor. But Garland quickly found premed classes not to his liking, Steinberg said. Instead, he took a seminar at the law school in his sophomore year. One day, Steinberg recalled, Garland received a phone call from the prominent professor of the class to discuss a paper he had written.
At first, he was terrified. Then the professor spoke. “He told him: ‘I don’t know what grade to give it. But I’ve given it an A-plus. It’s the best paper I’ve ever seen in a seminar,’ ” Steinberg recalled.
Asked to name a weakness of his friend – who will be officiating the wedding of his daughter in three weeks – Steinberg struggled.
Finally, he came up with an answer.
“He can’t cook,” Steinberg said. “But he can eat.”
(c) 2016, The Washington Post · David A. Fahrenthold, Tom Hamburger, Rosalind S. Helderman