- The Washington Times - Tuesday, March 29, 2016

Supreme Court nominee Merrick Garland met with his first Republican senator Tuesday as his nomination gained at least the appearance of momentum, aided by high-profile conservative voices, public pressure and a high court ruling affected by the lack of a ninth justice.

Judge Garland met with Sen. Mark Kirk, a Republican up for re-election in blue-state Illinois. Mr. Kirk is among 16 Republican senators who now say they will hold courtesy meetings with the nominee, despite a vow by Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell, Kentucky Republican, not to hold hearings or a confirmation vote on President Obama’s choice to replace the late conservative Justice Antonin Scalia.

Mr. Kirk, one of the most endangered incumbent Republicans this year, told reporters before the meeting that he wants to be open-minded about the nomination.

“I think when you just say, ‘I’m not going to meet with him at all,’ that’s too closed-minded,” he said.

The senator and the nominee met after a respected conservative lawyer and former George W. Bush nominee, Miguel Estrada, shot holes in assertions that Judge Garland is hostile to the Second Amendment. Mr. Estrada told NPR that evidence used to portray him as anti-gun is “thin to nonexistent.”

Activists point to Judge Garland’s vote in 2007 for a rehearing of a case involving the District of Columbia’s ban on handguns, in which a three-judge panel ruled for the first time that there is a constitutional right to own firearms for self-defense. The conservative Judicial Crisis Network has said Judge Garland’s vote suggests that he doesn’t believe the Second Amendment provides for gun ownership for personal protection.

Mr. Estrada said the rules allow judges to rehear cases “of exceptional importance.” Because no federal appeals court had ever ruled that there was an individual right to own a gun, he said, the case was clearly of exceptional importance.

The Supreme Court later upheld the lower court’s decision in a landmark ruling.

Progressive activists also pointed to a high court ruling Tuesday, a 4-4 split, which upheld a lower-court ruling favorable to teachers unions, as another indication of the need to fill the court vacancy. Although Judge Garland could not have been confirmed and seated in time to make a difference in the case, liberals said it was an unsatisfactory example of how the Supreme Court would be forced to operate for a year or more without Mr. Obama’s appointee.

Judge Garland’s nomination also got a boost this week from a nationwide poll showing that a plurality of Americans — 46 percent — say the Senate should confirm him, compared with 30 percent who think he should be rejected and 24 percent who don’t know.

While these developments may be good news on the surface for the Garland nomination, there is no indication that any of it is having an impact on Mr. McConnell or Senate Judiciary Committee Chairman Chuck Grassley, Iowa Republican.

Another Republican lawmaker who has agreed to meet with Judge Garland, Sen. Susan M. Collins of Maine, said Tuesday that Mr. McConnell is “not real happy” with her. The moderate lawmaker said she is “a bit perplexed” by Mr. McConnell’s position.

“I know Sen. McConnell cares deeply about the balance of the court,” she told WGAN radio in Maine. “If the next president is a Democrat, then the balance could be tipped way further than Judge Garland, based on what I know about him so far. Let’s say that Hillary Clinton is the next president of the United States. I personally believe that she would be likely to choose a nominee who is to the left of Judge Garland.”

She said Republican presidential front-runner Donald Trump is “rather unpredictable.”

“Who knows who his nominee would be?” Ms. Collins said.

Mr. McConnell has said he wants voters to decide the direction of the Supreme Court with the November presidential election. He said his position is based on principle, not the nominee.

Ms. Collins said, “I’m not quite sure what [Mr. McConnell’s] thinking is, but it’s clearly one that he believes strongly in. He says, ‘It’s the principle, not the person.’ To me, the person makes all the difference.”

Meanwhile, a government watchdog group sent a letter to the president of Harvard University on Tuesday asking for the school to release any transcripts and minutes of meetings in October 1973 in which Judge Garland, then an undergraduate student, participated in a push for a vote on Harvard’s ban on the Reserve Officer Training Corps from its campus.

“We believe Americans have a right to know about Garland’s views of the military, which will enable them to make an informed decision about his judicial qualifications and whether to support his nomination,” wrote Matthew Whitaker, executive director of the Foundation for Accountability and Civic Trust.

Mr. Whitaker, a former U.S. attorney who ran for the Senate as a Republican in 2014, said failing to release the records “only indicates there is something to hide.”

At town hall meetings in Iowa this week, Mr. Grassley encountered people opposed to and supportive of his decision not to hold a confirmation hearing on Judge Garland. He has said he would meet with the nominee.

Mr. Grassley ruled out the idea of holding hearings during a postelection “lame duck” session of Congress, as some lawmakers are advocating.

“I have to be consistent,” Mr. Grassley said. “You can’t argue with the decision of the electorate.”

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