When I learned that Justice Antonin Scalia had died, I immediately told anyone who would listen that President Barack Obama should appoint Chief Judge Merrick Garland of the D.C. Circuit court to the U.S. Supreme Court as soon as possible. And I'm happy to say that the president evidently agreed, following through on the appointment last week. My reasoning was that the Republicans would no doubt resist confirming anyone, but no one could reasonably object to Chief Judge Garland on the merits. Not even Donald Trump could say that he is too young or too liberal or too something (although I may be underestimating Mr. Trump's remarkable ability to say anything with a straight face). In any event, any reasonable person would conclude that objections to Chief Judge Garland's appointment are entirely partisan.
Indeed, Chief Judge Garland is the best-prepared Supreme Court nominee since I graduated from law school in 1980. He has been on the D.C. Circuit for almost 20 years. Often called the country's second most important court, the D.C. Circuit has a docket that is much more like the Supreme Court's docket than that of any other court — most importantly, it hears many more complex challenges to the important decisions of federal agencies than any other court. It is no accident that presidents frequently turn to D.C. Circuit judges rather than judges from the 12 other federal circuits: Chief Justice John Roberts and Justices Clarence Thomas and Ruth Bader Ginsburg also served on the D.C. Circuit, as did Justice Scalia.
Even on that excellent court, Chief Judge Garland has distinguished himself. No one is more prepared or more thoughtful — and the D.C. Circuit judges are all well-prepared and thoughtful. No one has ever accused Chief Judge Garland of confusing his personal preferences with the fair meaning of constitutional or statutory text or controlling precedent. I do not mean to suggest that he pretends that all cases can be decided on the basis of text or precedent or that a judge's background and judicial philosophy do not matter when a case is not easy. But he recognizes that sometimes the decision is clear, and he will follow the text or precedent even if it leads to a result he might not prefer as a matter of policy.
I have argued before Chief Judge Garland four times and seen him on the bench many more times, and his questioning is penetrating but always courteous. If Chief Judge Garland has a flaw, it is that he is slower on average than the other D.C. Circuit judges in issuing his opinions. But this flaw no doubt results from his extreme attention to detail, which matters to litigants as well as jurists. In a recent case argued by one of my associates, Chief Judge Garland wrote an opinion that analyzed every issue with such precision that, even though we lost the case, both the client and the lawyers on our team felt that we had been heard and treated fairly. Chief Judge Garland's picture could appear next to the dictionary entry for "excellent judicial temperament."
I have had the opportunity to argue more than 20 cases before the D.C. Circuit and the Supreme Court — I think I am the only practicing lawyer who has argued that many cases in both courts — and I also have argued before most of the other federal courts of appeals. Of course, for every case I argue I participate in the briefing in many more — and read dozens of judicial opinions for every case I brief. I clerked for a Supreme Court justice and a judge on the Ninth Circuit, and got a close-up look at the other judges and justices during those experiences. So I think I can judge the judges. And while I know every judicial appointee gets described by someone as "brilliant" — and, of course, it's not always true — it really is true here.
Some will say that it is not important to have any more brilliant justices on the Supreme Court. Justice Scalia, for example, was very talented in his own way but, in my opinion and that of many others, deeply flawed as a justice. However, it surely matters whether a justice is an excellent lawyer. No one should dispute that it is important to have justices who exemplify outstanding judicial temperament. And more justices as talented and congenial as Chief Judge Garland are needed to help to influence and moderate the talented conservative lawyers on the court.
Christopher J. Wright is the lead appellate partner at Harris, Wiltshire & Grannis LLP in Washington D.C.