Merrick Garland talks to grads at alma mater Niles West on May 29

SHARE Merrick Garland talks to grads at alma mater Niles West on May 29

U.S. Supreme Court nominee Merrick Garland, chief judge of the D.C. Circuit Court, is a Chicago native raised in Lincolnwood. He was the valedictorian at Niles West High School in 1970. | Alex Wong/Getty Images

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WASHINGTON — The White House gave the scoop to student journalists at Niles West High School, who broke a big story on Thursday: Supreme Court nominee Merrick Garland, a 1970 graduate of the Skokie school, will return on May 29 to address the class of 2016.

Niles West News reporters Grace Geraghty and Katrina Nickell revealed how Niles West principal Jason Ness made a cold call to extend an invitation to Garland, a federal appellate judge here. Ness simply turned to Google to find a number for Garland’s chambers and phoned in April.

The Geraghty and Nickell report, circulated by the White House, crashed the Niles West website for a time.

When I talked to Ness later on Thursday, he told me he was surprised when Garland himself returned the call a few days later. “I was blown away by that,” Ness said.

It’s very unusual – almost unheard of – for anyone awaiting Senate confirmation to make a public speech. Handlers see any comments as risky and potentially grist for opponents to seize on.

But the White House, in a battle with Senate Republican leaders to allow Garland a hearing and an up-or-down vote, is going the nontraditional route here because the Garland confirmation fight is anything but routine.


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With Garland, it’s not personal. Senate GOP Leader Mitch McConnell, R-Ky., advised President Barack Obama not to bother sending the Senate a nominee within hours of the death of Justice Antonin Scalia on Feb 13. Even though Obama at the time had 11 months left to his term, McConnell argued that the pick should be up to the next president.

The White House and Obama allies are mounting a campaign to pressure Republicans — especially Senate Judiciary Committee Chairman Chuck Grassley R-Iowa — to lift the blockade. To date, Garland has met with 48 senators; 15 of them Republican.

Obama reflected on Garland’s own Niles West graduation when he tapped Garland on March 16.

Garland, a Chicago native raised in Lincolnwood, was his class valedictorian. Obama said that after another student speaker at his 1970 commencement “unleashed a fiery critique of the Vietnam War,” several parents unplugged the sound system.

“Stirred by the sight of a fellow student’s voice being silenced, he tossed aside his prepared remarks and delivered instead, on the spot, a passionate, impromptu defense of our First Amendment rights,” Obama said last March.

White House Press Secretary Josh Earnest said at Thursday’s briefing that Garland will not be discussing his Supreme Court confirmation bid in his Niles West speech.

“He will be specifically addressing the class of 2016 at Niles West. Obviously, he is an alum of that fine institution, and he was invited by the principal of the school to deliver the commencement address,” Earnest said. “And obviously that community, and that high school in particular, is quite proud of the accomplishments of what probably is now their most famous graduate. And so it seemed like a good opportunity for him to address the class of 2016.”

Said Ernest: “I had an opportunity to talk to him about this a couple of weeks ago, and I know that he’s very much looking forward to going back and reliving some old high school memories, but also having an opportunity hopefully to impart some wisdom and inspiration to the class of 2016.”

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