WASHINGTON – Both President Barack Obama and his Supreme Court nominee, Merrick Garland have Chicago roots and on Thursday, Obama will discuss the importance of filling the vacancy on the nation’s highest court at the University of Chicago Law School, where he once taught.
The town-hall style conversation with law students and faculty will “continue to shed light on why it is so important that everyone does their job and give Judge Garland a fair hearing and an up-or-down vote,” White House Strategic Communications Advisor Rachel Racusen told the Chicago Sun-Times.
Obama’s visit to the law school where he taught constitutional law between 1992 and 2004 comes as Republican Senate leaders are blocking the nomination of Garland, a federal appellate judge here who was born in Chicago and raised in north suburban Lincolnwood.
Hours after Justice Antonin Scalia died on Feb. 13, Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell, R-Ky., said Obama should not nominate a replacement to fill the spot and leave it for the next president – even though Obama had almost a year left in his term.
The battle over the Garland nomination looms large over Obama’s final months in office.
Obama wants to use his U. of C. session — his first public event to talk about the Supreme Court slot since he nominated Garland on March 16 — to show the bigger, broader context of what is at stake, Racusen said.
The president wants to discuss, at a school where he has a deep connection, “the Supreme Court, the integrity of it as an institution and the importance of it for our country’s judicial system.”
He will talk about Garland and his qualifications and the importance of him being able to join the court as “quickly as possible to get their business done,” Racusen said.
In taking “the case directly to law students,” Racusen said, the president is aiming “for a conversation focused on the importance of the courts, the integrity of the courts and in that context talk about the importance of Judge Garland’s nomination.”
Obama’s historic return to the U. of C.’s Hyde Park campus is full of symbolism.
The South Side of Chicago played a key role in Obama’s life and path to the White House, and will be the future home of the Obama Presidential Center, the building to house his library, museum and foundation — the base for many of his pursuits once he leaves office.
Besides Obama teaching at the law school, first lady Michelle Obama was an executive at the U. of C. Medical Center; their daughters attended the Lab School, and White House senior advisor Valerie Jarrett has extensive connections to the university, just a short distance from the Obama Kenwood home.
The Obama’s selected the U. of C. bid for their center, to be constructed either in Washington or Jackson park. On March 18, the Obama Foundation moved its interim headquarters to a U. of C. office building in Hyde Park.
The White House is waging a robust campaign, helped on the outside by a team of former Obama administration aides, to press the case for the Senate to act.
“This is the president getting out of D.C., going to his hometown in a place where Judge Garland also has roots, to a school where the president himself and Judge Garland also have connections,” Racusen said.
Garland, a 1970 graduate of Niles West High School went to Harvard for undergrad and law school. Garland’s sister, Jill Roter, a Northbrook resident, told the Sun-Times that their mother, Shirley, who still lives in Lincolnwood, received an undergraduate degree from the U. of C., as did their late father, Cyril, who passed away in 2000.
Garland’s mother was a director of volunteer services for the Council for Jewish Elderly. Garland’s father ran a direct mail advertising company out of the basement of the family home, where a young Merrick and his sisters would help out with the addressing and runs to the post office, Roter said.
Obama’s U. of C. homecoming has to do with the president returning to his legal roots as he wages the Supreme Court fight; it is not being planned to target Sen. Mark Kirk, R-Ill.
Kirk is the Republican who has emerged as the most vocal supporter of Obama’s right to send a nominee to the Senate and for that person to get a hearing and a vote. Kirk on Tuesday became the first Republican to meet with Garland and he praised him as an exceptional jurist.
Garland will remain here while Obama travels to Chicago to focus on the court as an institution – a message being echoed by Obama’s allies and surrogates.
Next week, two more Republicans, Sens. Susan Collins of Maine and John Boozman of Arkansas, will meet with Garland. Garland huddles with Sen. Dick Durbin, D-Ill., on Wednesday.
Obama, in his last months in the White House, has been reflecting on his own journey.
On Feb. 10, Obama traveled to Springfield, where he started his career as a state senator, to deliver a nostalgic speech to a joint session of the Illinois General Assembly.
His Springfield remarks on the difficulty of bridging bitter partisan divides and polarized politics now are especially timely given the blockade the GOP Senate leaders have thrown up around the Garland nomination.
“And in a big, complicated democracy like ours, if we can’t compromise, by definition, we can’t govern ourselves,” Obama said last month, setting the stage as it turns out, for the struggle over the Supreme Court.