Obama brings fight for Supreme Court nominee to Chicago

President Barack Obama answers questions from students at the University of Chicago Law School during a town hall meeting on Thursday, April 7, 2016. (Max Greenwood/MEDILL)

By Max Greenwood

President Barack Obama returned to his old constitutional bastion of the University of Chicago Law School on Thursday to pitch his case for his Supreme Court nominee Judge Merrick Garland.

“Merrick Garland is an extraordinary jurist who is indisputably qualified to serve on the highest court in the land, and no one really argues otherwise,” said Obama, at the school where he taught constitutional law for more than a decade. “What is unique is the growing attitude inside the Senate that every nomination, no matter how qualified a judge is, is a subject of contention.”

Joined onstage by University of Chicago law professor David Strauss and surrounded by an audience of law students, faculty and judges, Obama argued that nominating a Supreme Court contender is part of his constitutional authority.  He said that GOP leaders blocking the nomination exemplify bad politics and disregard for the Constitution.

Obama nominated Garland, chief judge of the U.S. Court of Appeals for the District of Columbia Circuit, to fill Justice Antonin Scalia’s seat on the Supreme Court after Scalia’s death in February. But Garland’s nomination met protests from leading Senate Republicans who insist they won’t confirm a Supreme Court nominee until after the November election.

U.S. Sen. Mark Kirk, R-Illinois, is among two Republican senators who have called for a hearing for Garland. Last week, Kirk became the first Republican in the senate to meet with the Supreme Court nominee. And in a memo to his Republican colleagues Tuesday, Kirk urged them to follow his lead. Garland is set to meet with 11 GOP senators this week.

“We had a positive conversation and I encourage you to meet with him,” Kirk wrote in the memo, also outlining topics they covered, including national security, prosecution of gang violence and online sex trafficking.

The town hall meeting at the University of Chicago marked a homecoming of sorts for Obama. He hasn’t returned to the campus since becoming president. Both Obama and Garland share Chicago as their hometown, and Scalia taught at the University of Chicago Law School for five years in the 1970s and ’80s.

The friendly crowd Thursday gave the president support for his argument. Kirby Smith, a second-year law student at the University of Chicago, said he sees the fight over the president’s Supreme Court nomination as particularly impactful for law students as they prepare to head into the profession.

“The longer the Senate puts this off, the more 4-4 decisions we’re going to see,” he said. “That amounts to a lot of unsettled law. As lawyers, we’d much rather see answers to these questions than have everything up in the air.”

Another second-year law student, Vaishalee Yeldandi, said she feels that Obama used the venue to underscore his standing as a former Constitutional law professor, and that he made a clear legal case for a Senate hearing for Garland.

“He’s doing his job, and he made that pretty clear,” she said. “I don’t think anyone can really argue that it’s not a president’s responsibility to nominate a justice when there’s an opening. As law students, we’re definitely going to understand that.”

Obama arrived at O’Hare on Air Force One at mid-day from Washington. He is set to appear at a series of fundraisers across California next, including one in Santa Monica for the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee tonight. The fundraisers are part of an effort by Democrats to reclaim control of the Senate in November.

Photo at top: President Barack Obama answers questions from students at the University of Chicago Law School during a town hall meeting on Thursday, April 7, 2016. (Max Greenwood/MEDILL)