Merrick Garland (1970, IL) is Chief Judge of the U.S. Court of Appeals for the D.C. Circuit. He was appointed to the court in 1997 and was named Chief Judge in February 2013. A graduate of Harvard College and Harvard Law School, Garland has spent the majority of his career in public service, serving as Special Assistant to the Attorney General (1979-1981), Assistant U.S. Attorney for the District of Columbia (1989-1992), Deputy Assistant Attorney General in the Criminal Division of the Department of Justice (1993-1994), and Principal Associate Deputy Attorney General (1994-1997). He was nominated to the U.S. Supreme Court by President Obama in 2016.
What are the memories you have of your trip to D.C. to receive your Presidential Scholar award?
I had been to Washington once before on a summer trip with my family. But we traveled by car because airplanes were awfully expensive. This time we took a plane, so that made it a big deal all by itself. I have some memories of specific things. I remember meeting the other Presidential Scholars at the dorm at GW. I remember visiting one of our Illinois senators’ offices to meet with him. I remember talks by some government officials; in particular, I remember George Shultz and David Packard.
At that point, did you know that you wanted to study law?
No. It was something I decided later. When I went to college, I was planning to be a doctor. I thought then, and I still think, that doctors have a more unambiguously positive impact on other people’s lives than lawyers. But it turned out that I liked my social sciences courses far more than the science courses – no doubt, because social sciences came a lot easier to me. When I went to one of the people who was serving as my pre-med advisor, he offered some advice that I took to heart: He said that I would be able to do public service in almost any career I chose, and that I would be able to make more of a contribution if I chose a field I was comfortable in. So, I switched from pre-med to social sciences. And then eventually went to law school.
Was it your goal once you graduated from law school to eventually become a judge? Or did those experiences point you in that direction?
Well, I did want to go into public service. That was something I had always wanted to do, whether through medicine or through law or through anything else. I never really planned on being a judge. I think you could consider me a kind of “accidental judge.” ... I was in the Justice Department at the time. I had just come back from Oklahoma City, where I had been working on an investigation. I was told that I was going to be nominated to be the head of the Criminal Division of the Justice Department. I began going through the process. Then an opening came at the U.S. Court of Appeals. And I think that because I had been going through the nomination process pretty smoothly, the powers-that-be decided it would be easier to just shift me into the judgeship than it would be to start anew with somebody else.
As you’ve said, being in public service was important to you – even in your college years. But you also worked in private practice. What, for you, have been the highs of each of those things? And also, what have been the lows?
Well, actually I don’t think I have had any lows in either one. I liked both private practice and public service very much. I like legal problems. I like learning about legal problems. I like cooperating with other people in figuring out legal problems. So, there really haven’t been any lows in either one. The high, though, is that there really is nothing like public service for giving you an opportunity to help other people and to sort of pay back – in a metaphorical way – for the good luck that you’ve had. So, I think nothing can really match that.
Can you describe the types of cases you’re ruling on in your current position?
I’m on the United States Court of Appeals for the D.C. Circuit. It’s one of the regional courts of appeals. The country is divided into 94 federal districts, where there are federal trial courts called federal district courts that decide federal cases that arise in those districts. Appeals from those trial courts go to the regional courts of appeals, which we call circuit courts. So, my court hears federal appeals arising in the District of Columbia. We’re somewhat different from the other circuit courts, though, because we are in the nation’s capital and so are most of the federal agencies. And the statutes normally provide that people who don’t like what happens in an agency can appeal to us. Sometimes they can appeal to another regional court of appeals, but they can almost always appeal to us. So, our court has a much higher percentage of cases involving challenges to federal statutes, to federal programs, to acts of the President – that sort of thing – than other courts of appeal.
That must be pretty exciting.
It’s very interesting. ... And because the cases are often of great importance, a lot of people are always watching.
Speaking of watching and scrutiny, you mentioned that you were overseeing an investigation in Oklahoma City. You’re talking about the Oklahoma City bombing case. And you were also involved with the case against Ted Kaczynski, the Unabomber. How do you deal with the pressure of such cases where people really are paying attention – I mean people like me who aren’t involved in the legal system at all, but who see it in the news and are curious and want to know?
You’re right. Those are two of the cases I worked on. They were very serious cases. And the media and the public were looking closely, and I think rightfully so. The rule of law requires not only that justice be done in an individual case, but that the public be confident that justice is being done. And
that requires transparency in our judicial system and our prosecutions. I think there isn’t any magic way to deal with pressure in these cases, other than to try to make sure that every “i” is dotted and every “t” is crossed, so that when the cases are over, people have confidence that the law was fairly applied.
What do you see as the next step in your career?
Well, that is an easy question. The Constitution grants federal judges life tenure; I intend to serve out my term.
Looking back over the course of your career and your education, what impact would you say the award has had on your life?
Well, I’d say that the most important impact was really the immediate impact. I came from a large public high school in Skokie, Ill. At the time I was named Presidential Scholar, I was about to go off
to Harvard, which was a place I was sure was filled with graduates of elite private high schools who were much smarter and better prepared than I was. Being named a Scholar meant that a pretty
impressive-sounding commission had decided that I’d be able to hold my own in an institution like that. And that gave me the kind of confidence to approach my first year in college that I needed to
do well, and that I likely might otherwise not have had. And doing well in your first year helps you do well in your second year, and thereafter.
Do you remember your fellow Scholars being an impressive and diverse kind of group?
Yes, I do. I don’t have that many strong memories, but I do remember that. Several of them came with me to Harvard as well. And it was very nice having some people there who you already knew, from ... other parts of the country and every kind of background. So that was another advantage, being with people for the week or thereabouts that we were in Washington together, [and then] having a couple of them with you when you went to a new place for college – people you could share your thoughts with. Like a little bit of a social safety net. Yes. I think that’s not a bad description.
You’ve received other awards and honors in the course of your education and career. What, if anything, stands out for you about the Presidential Scholars award?
It was the kind of thing that, coming at a pretty important juncture in my life, gave me the confidence that I would be able to do my work and get along in an environment with extremely high-powered people. The other thing that stands out about it is that it came so completely out of the blue and without applying. I don’t know whether there’s anything else I’ve ever received that came in quite the same way [that was] of such importance.
What would you like this honor to mean to the Scholars of today?
Well, given its tie to the President and to the Department of Education, I would like it to constitute some kind of encouragement for smart high school students to think about spending at least part of their careers in public service. You come to Washington for this event and meet with people who are public servants. That’s the most exciting part of the trip. If there could be not only that one trip,
but also some kind of follow-on program while the students are still in college and thinking about their futures, that would both encourage public service careers and help Presidential Scholars find a way into those kinds of careers.
I think President Johnson’s initial vision for the program was for these high school students to be recognized for their achievements, but also to challenge them to use their talents for the greater good.
That sounds like exactly the hope I would have for the program