WASHINGTON (Reuters) - President Barack Obama selected Merrick Garland for the U.S. Supreme Court on Wednesday, choosing a centrist judge meant to win over recalcitrant Senate Republicans whose leaders wasted no time in spurning the Democratic president.
A bruising political fight is brewing over the nomination, which also promises to figure in the already contentious campaign for the Nov. 8 U.S. presidential election. The Republican-led Senate's leaders have vowed not to hold confirmation hearings or an up-or-down vote on any Obama nominee.
Garland, 63, was picked to replace long-serving conservative Justice Antonin Scalia, who died on Feb. 13. A Chicagoan like Obama, he serves as chief judge of the influential U.S. Court of Appeals for the District of Columbia Circuit and is a former prosecutor who in the past has won praise from both Republicans and Democrats.
Wasting no time in pressing its case for Senate confirmation, the administration is dispatching Garland to Capitol Hill on Thursday to huddle with Senator Patrick Leahy of Vermont, the senior Judiciary Committee Democrat and then with Senate Democratic leader Harry Reid of Nevada.
Such meetings are aimed at shoring up Senate support for the nominee and generating media coverage. The lifetime appointment to the high court requires Senate confirmation.
Obama's announcement prompted a flood of reaction from private groups that will work to advance or kill the nomination.
The UAW, representing automobile, aerospace and some agricultural workers, call Garland "a distinguished, moderate judge with more federal judicial experience than any other Supreme Court nominee in history."
National Rifle Association Executive Director Chris Cox said, "A basic analysis of Merrick Garland’s judicial record shows that he does not respect our fundamental, individual right to keep and bear arms for self-defense."
Republicans, hoping a candidate from their party wins the presidential election, are demanding that Obama leave the seat vacant and let his successor, to be sworn in next January, make the selection. Billionaire businessman Donald Trump is leading among Republicans for the nomination. Obama's former secretary of state, Hillary Clinton, is the front-runner for the Democrats.
Obama said Republican senators should give Garland a fair hearing. He said that failing to do so "will not only be an abdication of the Senate’s constitutional duty, it will indicate a process for nominating and confirming judges that is beyond repair."
Such a move, he said, would also undermine the reputation of the Supreme Court and faith in the American justice system. "Our democracy will ultimately suffer as well," Obama added, as he introduced Garland at a White House Rose Garden ceremony.
Scalia's death left the nine-member Supreme Court evenly split with four liberals and four conservative justices. Obama's nominee could tilt the court to the left for the first time in decades, which could affect rulings on contentious issues including abortion, gun rights, the death penalty and political spending.
Obama said the Supreme Court was supposed to be above politics and it should remain so. Obama said that with politics in the United States so polarized, "this is precisely the time when we should play it straight, and treat the process of appointing a Supreme Court justice with the seriousness and care it deserves."
Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell of Kentucky swiftly reiterated that the Senate will not consider the nomination by the president. A McConnell spokesman said the senator had spoken by phone with Garland and would not hold a "perfunctory meeting" with him.
John Cornyn of Texas, the second-ranking Senate Republican, added, "This person will not be confirmed, so there's no reason going through some motions and pretending like it will happen, because it's not going to happen."
CRACKS IN MCCONNELL'S STRATEGY
Some cracks began appearing in McConnell’s strategy of completely shutting out the nominee. A handful of Republican senators including Susan Collins of Maine, Kelly Ayotte of New Hampshire, Jeff Flake of Arizona, Mark Kirk of Illinois and Rob Portman of Ohio said they would be willing to meet with Garland.
Collins said the Senate Judiciary Committee should hold confirmation hearings.
Judiciary Committee member Orrin Hatch, whose past support of Garland was cited by Obama, said the pick does not change his view "at this point" that no Obama nominee should be considered.
Senator Pat Toomey of Pennsylvania, who is in a tough re-election battle, said, "Should Merrick Garland be nominated again by the next president, I would be happy to carefully consider his nomination."
Garland is the oldest Supreme Court nominee since Republican Richard Nixon in 1971 nominated Lewis Powell, who was 64. Presidents tend to pick nominees younger than that so they can serve for decades and extend a president's legacy. Obama may reason that the choice of an older nominee might also entice Senate Republicans into considering his selection.
Garland would become the fourth Jewish member of the nine-member court. There are five Roman Catholics on the court. Obama considered but passed over Garland when he made two prior Supreme Court appointments.
With solid Republican support, the Senate voted in 1997 to confirm Garland to his present job in a bipartisan 76-23 vote after he was nominated by Democratic President Bill Clinton.
Garland is widely viewed as a moderate. He is a former prosecutor who served in the Justice Department under Clinton. He oversaw the prosecution in the 1995 Oklahoma City bombing case including securing the death penalty for the lead defendant, anti-government militant Timothy McVeigh.
In his current post, he is known for narrow, centrist opinions and rhetoric that is measured rather than inflammatory even when in dissent.
KEEP WORKING, OBAMA TELLS SENATORS
Standing in between Obama and Vice President Joe Biden during the Rose Garden ceremony, an emotional Garland referred to the Oklahoma City bombing case, saying, "Once again, I saw the importance of assuring victims and families that the justice system could work."
Obama said he fulfilled his constitutional duty by naming a nominee and said it was time for the Senate to do its job. "Presidents do not stop working in the final year of their term. Neither should a senator," Obama said.
Obama, in office since 2009, has already named two justices to the Supreme Court: Sonia Sotomayor, who at 55 became the first Hispanic justice in 2009, and Elena Kagan, who was 50 when she became the fourth woman ever to serve on the court in 2010.
Democrats praised his latest choice.
"If Merrick Garland can't get bipartisan support no one can," Democratic Senator Charles Schumer of New York said.
Hillary Clinton called Garland "a brilliant legal mind," urging the Senate to move ahead with the confirmation process.
Trump said it was critical for Republicans to take back the White House to avoid Democrats shaping the Supreme Court for decades to come.
(Additional reporting by Julia Edwards, Joan Biskupic, Susan Cornwell, Doina Chicau, Tim Ahmann, Susan Heavey, John Shiffman, Lawrence Hurley and David Morgan; Writing by Will Dunham; Editing by Frances Kerry and Grant McCool)