US President Barack Obama has nominated appeals court judge Merrick Garland to the Supreme Court. Despite being a centrist with a law-and-order streak, Garland is likely to face opposition from Senate Republicans.
Obama has tipped Merrick Garland to replace conservative stalwart Justice Antonin Scalia, who died unexpectedly a month ago.
Scalia's death ended the conservatives' 5-4 advantage on the country's highest court and gives Obama an opportunity to appoint a third justice to the Supreme Court during his tenure as president, after Justice Sonia Sotomayor and Justice Elena Kagan.
Obama described the 63-year-old Garland as "a serious man and an exemplary judge" deserving of a full hearing and a Senate confirmation vote. However, numerous Republicans have already vowed to reject him, leading Obama to appeal to the Senate to "play it straight" in filling the vacant seat.
"It's supposed to be above politics," Obama said of the high court. "It has to be. And it should stay that way."
Some 57 percent of Americans said they believed that Obama should name a replacement for the vacant Supreme Court seat, while 33 percent said he should not, according to a recent poll by Reuters/Ipsos. Many have also tried to sway Senate Republicans on social media, with a petition under the Twitter hashtag #DoYourJob already attracting 1.5 million signatures.
Republican leaders appear to be holding on to their refusal to consider any nominee put forward by Obama, saying that the seat should be filled by the next president after this year's election on November 8.
Former presidential candidate Senator John McCain said that Obama's "lame-duck" presidency should leave the appointment to next president, who will take office in January 2017.
"I believe the American people must have a voice in the direction of the Supreme Court by electing a new president," he said.
Republican Senator Orrin Hatch, who voted for Garland to join the DC circuit court and once suggested that he could be appointed to the Supreme Court, defended his current opposition.
"He's a good man," said Hatch. "But he shouldn't be brought up in this toxic environment. I'm tired of the Supreme Court being used as a battering ball back and forth between both sides. That's why I'd put it off until next year, whoever is president it'll be fair."
The White House, however, is hoping that public pressure may force some Republican senators, in particular those who face re-election in November, to reconsider their position.
Senate Judiciary Committee Chairman Charles Grassley, a Republican, said Wednesday that he was open to meeting with Garland in the coming weeks, as did five other Republican senators - Rob Portman of Ohio, Jeff Flake of Arizona, Susan Collins of Maine, James Inhofe of Oklahoma, and Kelly Ayotte of New Hampshire.
Liberal groups have announced a national campaign to target Republican Senate opponents with demonstrations and television ads in what is likely to become one of the most bitter fights ever over a Supreme Court nomination.
With Democratic front-runner Hillary Clinton leading in the polls ahead of November's general election, Republicans also face the possibility that success in opposing Garland could lead to a more left-leaning nominee being appointed next year by Clinton should she be elected president.
Garland will begin visiting with Democratic senators, who are expected to back his nomination, later this week at the Capitol, before the Senate breaks for a two-week recess. Garland needs 60 out of 100 Senate votes to be confirmed as a Supreme Court judge.
Candidate with outstanding qualifications
Garland is currently the chief judge for the United States Court of Appeals for the District of Columbia Circuit. A graduate of Harvard College and Harvard Law School, Garland made his reputation as a federal prosecutor overseeing the investigation and prosecutions in the 1995 Oklahoma City bombing as well as the case against Unabomber Ted Kaczynski.
As a replacement for Scalia, Garland would undoubtedly shift the court away from its conservative predisposition in recent decades. He would be expected to align himself with the more liberal members on issues such as environmental regulation, labor disputes and campaign finance.
His positions on hot topics such as abortion, gun control and capital punishment remain unclear, having earned a reputation as centrist with a law-and-order streak when it comes to criminal defense and national security cases, siding more often with prosecutors. However, he has also passed more liberal judgments in the past.
US presidential candidate Senator Ted Cruz indicated in a statement that Garland's nomination would result in tougher gun control and laxer guidelines on abortion, in line with Obama's liberal stances.
In emotional remarks at the White House, Garland said the nomination was "the greatest honor of my life," adding that he viewed a judge's job as a mandate to set aside personal preferences and "follow the law, not make it."
"Trust that justice will be done in our courts without prejudice or partisanship is what, in a large part, distinguishes this country from others," said Garland.
Obama was largely expected to pick a minority representative for the position, with names like appeals court Judge Srikanth Srinivasan, who would have been the first Asian-American justice, and Judge Paul Watford, who would have been the second African-American on the current court, making the final list.
Supreme Court justices are appointed for life and can exert a powerful influence on major social issues in America.