After the Oklahoma City bombing in 1995 that killed 168 people, Merrick Garland, then a top lawyer at the U.S. Department of Justice, went to his supervisor, Jamie Gorelick, then the deputy U.S. attorney general, with a request.
“He said, ‘You need to send me, I have to go,’ ” said Gorelick, now a partner at Wilmer Cutler Pickering Hale and Dorr. Garland spent weeks on the ground in Oklahoma City overseeing the Justice Department’s investigation.
“The way he related to the victim’s families was extraordinary,” Gorelick said. Garland’s “impulse to make the world a better place is nowhere more evident than when he asked to be dispatched to Oklahoma City.”
Garland, a judge on the U.S. Court of appeals for the D.C. Circuit since 1997 and chief judge of the court since 2013, was nominated on Wednesday to the U.S. Supreme Court. His former clerks, colleagues and friends described Garland as a lawyer and then a judge dedicated to his work and his family. Many struggled to come up with hobbies or interests that didn’t involve one of those two things.
Garland is “a fine human being and a fine judge,” said D.C. Circuit Judge Laurence Silberman, who was appointed to the bench in 1985. Garland’s tenure as chief judge has been “peaceful,” Silberman said.
Hogan Lovells partner Neal Katyal, a former acting U.S. solicitor general, said Garland is “is a man who has not rested for a day in his life.”
“The thing you get every single time is he’s not only brilliant, he puts in the sweat equity. He comes in on the weekends, he has his clerks come in when he’s working on opinions over the weekend. He’s just always trying to get it right,” said Katyal, who added that he’s hired former Garland clerks.
The decision to put Garland in charge of the Oklahoma City investigation was a sign of “how confident everybody and particularly Jamie and the attorney general were in him, because obviously nothing is ever going to be higher profile than that,” said John Schmidt, a partner at Mayer Brown and the associate attorney general while Garland was at the Justice Department.
“He’s a very sensible person. He’s the kind of person who, if you're in a meeting with him, he’s looking for some common ground, he’s looking for a way to move ahead,” Schmidt said.
Amy Jeffress, an Arnold & Porter partner who worked with Garland in the Justice Department under Gorelick, remembers how he hand-picked the trial team on the Oklahoma City bombing case. While Gorelick handled managerial tasks, Garland was hands-on. He would go office to office, asking the attorneys, “Have you read about this?”
“He’s not at all arrogant, which is why people are so loyal to him and love him so much,” Jeffress said. “He doesn’t need to prove he’s the smartest person in the room. He just is.”
Garland clerked in 1978 and 1979 on the Supreme Court for the late Justice William Brennan Jr. Carter Phillips, chairman of Sidley Austin’s executive committee, clerked for the late Justice Warren Burger at the same time. He recalled that Garland was not a very good basketball player, but an engaged participant in conversations about cases.
Phillips, a veteran Supreme Court and appellate advocate, said Garland would “fit in comfortably” on the high court.
“I don’t think he’d be a replacement for Justice Scalia in that he’d be asking 10 to 15 questions in 30 minutes of argument. I also don’t think he’d be a shy and retiring justice,” Phillips said. “I think he would ask questions and they would be good questions and they would advance the understanding of the justices about what the case is about and what’s the right thing to do.”
Phillips has argued in front of Garland over the years in the D.C. Circuit. He said Garland is “about the nicest person to argue in front of that you could ask for. He’s prepared, he’s thoughtful, he’s considerate, he’s respectful.”
Katyal said he argued a case during Garland’s first year on the bench. Garland was the “kid” on the bench but still asked “fabulous questions,” Katyal said.
“He was so on it,” Katyal said.
Garland is a longtime feeder judge for Supreme Court clerks, and his former clerks are a loyal bunch sometimes referred to as “Garlandistas.” Sam Erman, a professor at the University of Southern California Gould School of Law, who clerked for Garland from 2009 to 2010, praised Garland’s integrity and care in applying the law.
Erman said he had his first son during his clerkship, and was nervous to tell Garland.
“Chambers is a very small group—four clerks and a secretary and the judge—so having one of the clerks suddenly have a kid and need time off in the middle can be disruptive,” Erman said, but Garland “made it clear this was only good news.” Erman said Garland now always asks about his “grandclerks.”
Garland has also officiated the weddings of several of his former clerks and colleagues, including Arnold & Porter partner Ronald Lee; private-practice partners Karen Dunn, a former clerk, and Brian Netter, an appellate advocate; and Jeffress and Judge Christopher Cooper, who now sits on the U.S. District Court for the District of Columbia.
“It was such an obvious choice we wanted him to do it,” Jeffress said. “He takes credit for setting us up” while they worked together in the Justice Department, “And we let him do that.”
Garland is close with his wife and two daughters. Clare Huntington, a professor at Fordham University Law School who clerked for Garland during his first year on the bench, said that when Garland thanked his family in his remarks in the Rose Garden on Wednesday, “those aren’t just words, that’s reflective of how he leads his life.” Huntington said she let out a “large cheer” in her office when the nomination was announced.
Garland enjoys the outdoors and goes hiking, skiing and canoeing. Huntington said that when she was a clerk, Garland took all his clerks on a walk from the courthouse to the Tidal Basin to see the cherry blossoms in bloom.
Katelyn Polantz contributed to this report.
Reprinted with permission from the March 16, 2016 edition of The National Law Journal © 2016 ALM Properties, Inc. All rights reserved. Further duplication without permission is prohibited.