President Obama on March 16 nominated Merrick Garland to the U.S. Supreme Court, selecting a federal judge with experience as a prosecutor followed by 18 years as a judge. Garland was born and raised in Illinois. He graduated from Harvard Law School and is married with two grown daughters.

Garland currently is chief judge of the U.S. Court of Appeals for the District of Columbia.

Merrick Garland and family posing for photo outdoors (White House)
Garland and his family enjoy the outdoors and often visit national parks. (White House)

The February 13 death of Supreme Court Justice Antonin Scalia created the vacancy on the highest U.S. court.

To assume Scalia’s seat, Garland must be confirmed by a majority vote of the U.S. Senate.

Garland has been involved in some important U.S. criminal cases, including the prosecutions of Timothy McVeigh and Terry Nichols for the 1995 bombing of a federal building in Oklahoma City that killed 168 people.

During his leisure time, Garland enjoys skiing, hiking and canoeing with his family. Together they have visited many of America’s national parks. Get to know more about Garland.

The democratic principles behind the nomination

Under the U.S. Constitution, the president and members of Congress are elected to their offices. They serve a specific term of office (six years for senators; two for representatives; four for the president, who may be re-elected only once). Supreme Court justices — like most other federal judges — instead are appointed and serve for life. Why is this?

The drafters of the Constitution believed it to be important that judges, especially, be unafraid to make unpopular decisions. So they decided that members of the federal judiciary would not be elected to their positions.

In “Federalist 76,” one of a series of essays published to persuade 18th-century Americans to adopt the proposed new Constitution, Alexander Hamilton rejected having Congress choose the justices (and ambassadors and other public officials). That, he wrote, would produce too much political bargaining among legislators.

Merrick Garland at lectern, between Vice President Biden and President Obama (© AP Images)
Supreme Court nominee Merrick Garland receives applause from President Obama and Vice President Biden on March 16. (© AP Images)

Better, he argued, if the president made the selection. In that case, Hamilton argued, the nominee’s quality would reflect directly on the president’s own reputation and “naturally beget a livelier sense of duty and a more exact regard” in making the selection.

But the Constitution also establishes checks and balances among the three branches of government. Were the president allowed to appoint Supreme Court justices on his own, his influence and power might be too great, and the temptation to appoint political favorites to judgeships might be too strong.

Allowing the legislative branch to confirm presidential nominees, Hamilton explained, “would be an excellent check upon a spirit of favoritism in the President, and would tend greatly to prevent the appointment of unfit characters from State prejudice, from family connection, from personal attachment, or from a view to popularity.”

What comes next?

Since 1789, the Senate has confirmed about three-fourths of Supreme Court nominees. Before the confirmation vote, nominees typically appear before the Senate’s Committee on the Judiciary, where they answer questions from committee members. In recent years, nominees have explained their judicial philosophy but generally declined to explain how they would rule on specific cases. These proceedings are open to the public, widely covered by news media and broadcast via television in their entirety.

U.S. Capitol building with American flag waving (Thinkstock)
The U.S. Capitol, where the Senate considers Supreme Court nominees (Thinkstock)

Until the Senate confirms a nominee for Justice Scalia’s seat, the court will have only eight members. Should the court divide evenly on a case, the lower court’s decision on that case will stand.