Obama talks bipartisanship and empathy as he presses case for Supreme Court nominee

Text by Anna Boisseau and Enrica Nicoli Aldini
Photo and video by Brendan Hickey

Barack Obama’s homecoming at the University of Chicago on April 7, where he taught for 11 years, was more than just a return to his roots in constitutional law. The president’s remarks echoed early campaign promises to bring together both sides of the aisle, this time through his nomination of a centrist judge, Merrick Garland, to the U.S. Supreme Court. However, reflecting the increased congressional partisanship that has come to define his presidency, Senate Republicans continue to refuse to meet with Obama’s nominee.

“That is unprecedented,” Obama said in a conversation with University of Chicago Law School professor and former colleague David Strauss. “If you start getting into a situation in which the process of appointing judges is so broken, so partisan that an eminently qualified jurist cannot even get a hearing, then we are going to see the kinds of sharp, partisan polarization that has come to characterize our electoral politics seeping entirely into the judicial system.”

The president has acknowledged that party lines have hardened over the past eight years. “It’s one of the few regrets of my presidency — that the rancor and suspicion between the parties has gotten worse instead of better,” Obama said in his last State of the Union address.

Obama’s timely choice to address Chicago law students reflected a rare bipartisan moment in the nomination process. Republican Illinois Senator Mark Kirk, who faces a tough race against Democrat Tammy Duckworth, was the first Republican to agree to meet with Garland.

While he declined Obama’s personal invitation to Thursday’s event, Kirk has been outspoken in his support of the confirmation process. “I urged my Republican colleagues yesterday to meet with Judge Garland and remain committed to the belief that the Judge deserves a thorough hearing process and a vote here in the Senate,” Kirk said in a statement released shortly after Obama started speaking.

Additionally, Garland himself carries Chicago ties, having grown up just 20 miles north of the University of Chicago campus. When a student asked Obama what diverse characteristics Garland would bring to the Supreme Court, the president cracked a few jokes about the judge being from the northern suburb of Skokie.

Speaking at the Law School for the first time as president, Obama highlighted his constitutional knowledge to discuss the characteristics he looks for in a Supreme Court justice. With Garland, this included how his upbringing in the greater Chicago area made him a candidate who understood the diversity of the United States.

The president mentioned a defense Garland gave of free speech, in the context of the Vietnam war, as class valedictorian at Nile West High School in Skokie. He spoke at great lengths of the judge’s involvement in the investigation of the 1995 Oklahoma City bombing, and the empathy he showed for the families of the victims.

“That tells me something about him,” Obama said. “It gives me confidence that this is someone who has thought about, what are our core values and ethics as a society?”

This line of thinking reflects Obama’s belief that the justices’ knowledge of the Constitution and the basic legal tenets need to blend with a deep “understanding of how the world works, so that they are not entirely blind to the history of racial discrimination, or gender discrimination, or how money operates in our world.”

When asked by a law student if he also considered the judge’s opinions on divisive political matters, Obama said “I’m very careful not to delve too specifically into a candidate’s position on live issues.” He said he instead looks at the moral disposition he wishes to find in his nominees. According to the president, judges who make good candidates for the Supreme Court “bring humanity to the job.”

“Obama rightly thinks that part of the responsibility of the Supreme Court is to protect those who are not projected adequately in the majoritarian democratic process,” Law School professor Geoffrey Stone said. “Understanding the plight of people who are being disadvantaged is a critical point of what makes a good justice.”

As much as the stall in Garland’s Senate deliberations reflects Obama’s greater struggles to bring the country together, the politicization of the Supreme Court reflects partisanism expansion into the supposedly independent branch of government. Obama said he fears that a prolonged debate over the next Supreme Court justice might hamper people’s faith in a nonpartisan judicial system.

“They’re already cynical because so much of so many opinions just end up being straight 5-4,” Obama said, “and it starts feeling like this is just a partisan alignment.”

It has become clear that the political maneuvering of the Senate Republicans has little to do with questions over Garland’s aptitude for the job. Stalling his confirmation to the Supreme Court could be an overt attempt to influence the direction of the Supreme Court for years to come.

“No one’s making the argument that Merrick Garland isn’t qualified,” Obama’s chief strategist David Axelrod said. “They’re making the argument they just don’t want Barack Obama to fill the seat of Justice Scalia because that might tip the court.”

Photo at top: President Barack Obama discusses his nomination of Merrick Garland to the Supreme Court at the University of Chicago Law School (Brendan Hickey/MEDILL)