WASHINGTON – Merrick Garland finally made his Supreme Court debut on Tuesday. Not in a justice’s black robe, but wearing the striped pants and jacket with tails reserved for government lawyers appearing before the court.
The onetime high court nominee was there to take part in a tradition that dates back more than 200 years: to be introduced to the justices as the nation’s attorney general.
Among the nine justices gazing down at Garland from the bench were former colleagues as well as the man ultimately appointed to the seat left vacant by the death of Justice Antonin Scalia. Republicans blocked Garland from having a hearing, much less a vote, after then-President Barack Obama nominated him for the slot in 2016.
But if Garland felt the urge to say to Justice Neil Gorsuch: “Excuse me, you’re sitting in my seat,” he restrained himself. In fact, if Tuesday was awkward for Garland at all, standing before a court that he might have joined with a lifetime appointment, he didn’t show it in the few minutes he spent in the marble-columned courtroom.
Garland entered the courtroom shortly before arguments began at 10 a.m. accompanied by Elizabeth Prelogar, the Biden administration’s top Supreme Court lawyer. Because of the coronavirus pandemic, the courtroom was virtually empty, with no members of the public present and only a few court personnel and reporters. Both Garland and Prelogar wore masks as lawyers are required to while not speaking before the justices.
Garland greeted the attorneys there for arguments. Then, when a buzzer indicating the start of court sounded and the justices emerged from behind the maroon curtains at the back of the bench, Garland stood along with the rest of the audience while the marshal announced the justices: “The honorable, the chief justice and the associate justices of the Supreme Court of the United States. Oyez! Oyez! Oyez!”
Prelogar, who recently argued two different abortion cases before the justices, stepped to the podium and made her introduction of the nation’s 86th attorney general.
“General Garland, on behalf of the court, I welcome you as the chief legal officer of the United States and as an officer of this court. We recognized the very important responsibilities that are entrusted to you,” Chief Justice John Roberts said before concluding: “We wish you well in the duties of your new office.”
Garland said just five words in response: “Thank you, Mr. Chief Justice.” The moment was so brief he didn’t even remove his mask. Then he slipped out of the courtroom.
Garland’s appearance marked a return of sorts. The Harvard law school graduate was a clerk on the court for Justice William Brennan. He became a judge on the U.S. Court of Appeals for the District of Columbia Circuit in 1997 and was a judge there until hanging up his robe in 2021 to become President Joe Biden’s attorney general.
Garland’s tenure as a judge made Tuesday’s introduction a particular formality. Garland’s former law clerks are frequent choices of the justices as their own law clerks, and two of the current justices are former colleagues. Roberts was a judge on the same court from 2003 to 2005. Justice Brett Kavanaugh, who smiled broadly through Tuesday’s ceremonial introduction, was a colleague for more than a decade, from 2006 to 2018. Justice Clarence Thomas served on that court too, from 1990 to 1991.
The appearance before the court may not be Garland’s last. While lawyers in the Solicitor General’s office usually make arguments for the government at the Supreme Court, in the past attorneys general have sometimes argued one case before the high court before they leave office.