WASHINGTON (CNN) — President Barack Obama was two hours into a round of golf on one of the toughest courses in the world when he learned his final months in office were about to take a dramatic turn.
When an aide interrupted Obama’s game on the PGA West Stadium Course outside Palm Springs to inform him Supreme Court Justice Antonin Scalia had suddenly died, the enormity of the moment was immediately clear: he’d been handed the first chance in decades to fundamentally alter the high court’s ideological makeup.
Weekending in Southern California’s Coachella Valley ahead of a meeting with Asian leaders, neither Obama nor anyone else in the White House could have anticipated the vacancy. Obama finished his round with three childhood buddies from Hawaii and would later deliver a short statement on Scalia in a hotel conference room.
A finely tuned nomination trajectory — honed by the successes of his past nominations and forged by the intensely political prism of the process — was soon underway, as described to CNN according to people familiar with the process of filling the vacancy. And behind the scenes, his closest allies were already scrambling to mobilize liberals behind the surprise opportunity.
“It’s been a very intense month for the team here,” said Brian Deese, Obama’s 38-year-old senior adviser who’s normally tasked with shepherding the White House climate agenda, but who was pulled to oversee the nomination efforts.
With Obama’s two successful Supreme Court confirmations long past, and all the current justices on the court putting off retirement, Obama’s chances for filling another seat had appeared slim. The President was content with his judicial legacy, which included adding new levels of diversity to the federal courts and the Supreme Court’s first female Hispanic justice.
That meant when Scalia died, extensive research material on potential candidates hadn’t yet been developed, though the White House counsel’s office maintained an “emergency list” of potential nominees.
That list had long included Merrick Garland, the chief federal appeals judge for the District of Columbia Circuit. Garland had come close to being nominated before, undergoing the intrusive vetting process and meeting Obama for an interview in 2010. Aside from his legal credentials, Obama was impressed by Garland’s decision, early in his career, to leave lucrative private practice to become a federal prosecutor. And he felt a kinship to a family man with two daughters who carves out time for family hiking trips.
Those attributes failed to elevate Garland to the nomination six years ago, when Obama ultimately chose Elena Kagan for the vacancy. And while officials say there hasn’t been any particular change in Garland’s qualifications, his candidacy this time around aligned with a scaled-up political environment unseen during Obama’s previous court nominations.
Consensus pick or unabashed liberal?
With Republicans insisting his eventual pick would be dead on arrival, Democrats quickly divided themselves into two camps after Scalia’s death: those pushing for a “consensus” pick that had already garnered backing from the GOP, and others — seeing political opportunity — urging Obama to pick an unabashed liberal who could galvanize voters in November’s elections.
The White House faced pressure from the groups on both sides. White House officials said they coordinated messaging efforts, and received input, from more than 4,000 advocates from across the progressive spectrum.
Asian-American leaders, buoyed by the appearance of Sri Srinivasan on speculative shortlists, began a lobbying effort to see the first Indian American appointed to the court. Attorney General Loretta Lynch, who eventually withdrew her name from contention, was the favorite of a separate contingent looking for the court’s first African-American woman.
Those efforts, however, were ultimately rejected by Obama, who chose instead to name his first male Supreme Court nominee, one with credentials the President says will be hard for Republicans to reject.
Through the process, Obama insisted upon strict privacy and level-headedness from the tight collection of aides who were tasked with compiling information about his options — demanding they “play it straight,” according to one participant, rather than submitting to the political furor that was mounting around the vacancy.
Obama, though his surrogates, also insisted upon unity among the often-at-odds collection of interest groups who were seeking specific attributes in a nominee. During conference calls convened in the week after Scalia’s death, Obama’s top lawyer Neil Eggleston and his closest adviser Valerie Jarrett stressed the need to back Obama’s obligation to name a nominee, rather than wage a campaign for certain type of Supreme Court justice.
Trusted former officials — including Katie Beirne Fallon, who had completed her final day as Obama’s top legislative liaison the day before Scalia died, and Stephanie Cutter, a veteran of his past nomination fights — were brought into the fold.
But the list of names under consideration was kept to only the closest possible circle of staffers. Lawmakers and advocates heard little, and were instructed to focus on the constitutional process rather than a list of potential nominees.
While some names were floated by outside parties, such as Nevada GOP Gov. Brian Sandoval and liberal hero Sen. Elizabeth Warren of Massachusetts, there were few leaks from within the White House on which names were being considered by Obama.
“Our effort there was to cast a wide net, move quickly, but be deliberate in this effort,” said Deese.
A week after Scalia’s death, aides had collated extensive research on nearly 10 candidates into a thick black binder — focusing heavily on the potential nominee’s public writings — and handed it off to the President for the weekend. Garland and other potential nominees were contacted in the days after Scalia died to gauge their continued interest in becoming the nominee.
As he weighed names, Obama put in calls to lawmakers, legal experts, political operatives and trusted advisers to gather information about potential candidates.
He said Wednesday that Garland’s name arose frequently.
“In all my conversations with senators from both parties in which I asked their views on qualified Supreme Court nominees — this includes the previous two seats that I had to fill — the one name that has come up repeatedly, from Republicans and Democrats alike, is Merrick Garland,” Obama said.
Multiple rounds of updates later — including adding and removing names at Obama’s request — a list of five federal appellate judges ultimately emerged, including Garland, Srinivasan and Ketanji Brown Jackson of U.S. Court of Appeals for the District of Columbia Circuit, Paul Watford of the 9th Circuit in California, and Jane Kelly of the 8th Circuit in Iowa.
Interviewed Garland amid Trudeau visit
Aides refused to name which candidates were interviewed, saying only that Obama spoke with a “handful” of people beginning last week. He interviewed Garland on Thursday, slating the sit-down amid a pomp-filled official visit from Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau.
Vice President Joe Biden, who was traveling in the Middle East, didn’t participate. The usual tricks of secrecy to evade prying eyes, including shuttling in candidates to the White House through out-of-the-way doors and into secret meetings with the president, were employed.
Garland, who at 63 is the oldest Supreme Court nominee since Nixon was president, underwent a medical examination that concluded he was physically up to the job.
That left only Obama to make a final determination, a decision aides say he made after returning to Washington from another round of golf — this time on a tony course in the outskirts of Dallas.
When he finally got the call from the president, Garland said the moment was a highlight of his life — with one small glitch.
“I wish that we hadn’t taught my older daughter to be so adventurous that she would be hiking in the mountains, out of cell service range when the President called,” he said in the Rose Garden.