WASHINGTON — Twice a day, Benjamin R. Civiletti, attorney general to President Jimmy Carter, invited his seven special assistants — mostly young graduates of the nation’s most prestigious law schools — to his private dining room at the Justice Department for casual conversation or friendly debate.
Merrick B. Garland, fresh from a Supreme Court clerkship, 26 and looking years younger, showed little interest in the breakfast or lunch chitchat. Even in staff meetings, he spoke so rarely that some colleagues figured him for shy or insecure.
But it became clear over time that Garland was silently working out his arguments, processing facts and testing alternatives. Surrounded by overachievers in a city full of people clamoring to be heard, he was waiting until he had something to say.
“He has a tendency to save up his points, and when he finally speaks up, his points come out almost like a Gatling gun,” said Lovida H. Coleman Jr., who worked with him back then and remains a close friend. “Not in an unpleasant way, not in a way of showing off. He was smart and to the point.”
Garland, now chief judge of the federal appeals court in Washington and President Obama’s nominee to the Supreme Court, has deftly navigated the capital’s high-powered legal circles for decades.
In a city where ambition is often rewarded when accompanied by partisan loyalty, he has pulled off a rare feat, advancing as a centrist whose hallmark is finding the middle ground.
His sharp mind — he was a standout in high school and at Harvard, and won clerkships with legal luminaries — has long commanded attention. Civiletti liked to tease Garland’s fellow assistants that he had a “résumé that makes you want to cry.”
Other judges, law school classmates, and old friends describe his ability to deliver solutions, identifying areas of agreement, sometimes on narrow grounds, when people are sharply divided.
“The essence of who you are is who you are at an early stage,” said Abbe D. Lowell, a Washington lawyer who worked alongside Garland as a fellow assistant to Civiletti. “Not only is he book smart, but he’s really able to use all of that intelligence to forge consensus.”
In his rise to the top, Garland, 63, has made canny decisions: choosing the Justice Department aide job rather than starting his career at a prominent law firm; later leaving a lucrative partnership to get trial experience as a federal prosecutor. He calls himself “an accidental judge,” because he was offered a judicial appointment while in line for a top Justice Department position.
“Look at his record,” Coleman said. “Every choice is virtually perfect.”
He was guided in the ways of Washington and the law by various mentors: a Supreme Court justice, an Illinois representative-turned-judge, a former corporate lawyer.
But Garland has thrived in part, many from both parties say, simply because he is nice. Several people used similar, somewhat surprising, language to describe the tough-minded legal advocate: “a sweet spirit,” Frank Keating, the former Oklahoma governor and a Republican, put it.
From his days as a high school student leader in the Chicago suburbs in the tumultuous late 1960s — where he spoke up for free speech yet shunned protests against the Vietnam War — to his time at the hypercompetitive Harvard Law Review, and through his years in Washington, Garland has accumulated friends and seemingly made few enemies.
But when it comes to a Supreme Court confirmation process, his careful course could hurt as much as it helps.
With Republican leaders refusing to hold hearings on his nomination and insisting that Obama’s successor should pick the next justice, conservative advocacy groups say there is evidence, like his decisions on gun rights or the fact that he volunteered for Democrats like Bill Clinton and Michael Dukakis, that he is not as moderate as he may seem.
Those on the left have their own complaints — that he is not a bold thinker or reliably liberal — but have mostly held back.
“He’s not an intellectual leader of the left or the right,” observed Tom Goldstein, an appellate lawyer and the founder of SCOTUSblog, a website devoted to Supreme Court news.
“The people out there cheering for the Garland nomination are the professional legal class in Washington, D.C.,” Goldstein said. “What you don’t see are the progressive, committed liberals saying, ‘Here’s our guy, let’s march into battle for him.’ ”
During his 19 years on the bench, Garland has tried to resist what can be an isolating job. He turns up at investitures, portrait unveilings, and charity dinners and socializes with members of the city’s legal elite.
He holds annual summer reunions for his fiercely loyal clerks at his home in Bethesda, Md., serving bagels and lox and cooing over their children, whom he calls his “grand-clerks.”
He even performs the occasional wedding. At the 2000 Nantucket ceremony of Beth Wilkinson, his former Justice Department deputy, and David Gregory, the former host of NBC’s “Meet the Press,” the nervous judge started the ceremony without the bride. “David turned to him,” Wilkinson recalled, “and said, ‘Merrick, don’t you think we should wait for Beth?’ ”
In his chambers at the imposing federal courthouse here, Garland keeps a coffee pot “strategically placed,” he has said, so that he has to walk by the clerks to get to it, and can stop and ask what they are doing.
Rather than have them write long memos for him, as is the custom of many other judges, he insists on doing his own research, for fear that he might miss some nuance or the finer points of an argument. Then, he said: “We just argue it out. I pick clerks who can say no to me, in a nice way — who can say, ‘That’s wrong, judge, and this is the reason why.’”
Having been passed over by Obama twice — first for Justice Sonia Sotomayor, and then Justice Elena Kagan, both more palatable to the political left — Garland is, the White House hopes, a man for this moment. Still, even with his mostly-in-the-middle record, it may not be enough.