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Supreme Court Hopeful Has Iowa Ties

Family Connection to Republican Governor Could Factor in Pick

Sen. Charles Grassley, as Judiciary chairman, would control the Supreme Court confirmation hearings. (Photo By Douglas Graham/CQ Roll Call)

An Iowa address helped put U.S. Circuit Judge Jane L. Kelly in the running to be a Supreme Court pick, but another potential nominee has family ties to Iowa’s top Republican politician.  

U.S. Circuit Judge Merrick Garland, reportedly one of President Barack Obama’s top three choices, is a second cousin of Iowa Gov. Terry E. Branstad, a Republican who is also the longest-serving governor in American history.  

Branstad even wrote Iowa Republican Sen. Charles E. Grassley to ask his support and assistance in the confirmation process for Garland in 1995, when Garland was nominated for the U.S. Court of Appeals for the D.C. Circuit.  

​The White House could consider the family connection to be an advantage as Obama nears his decision on filling the seat of the late Justice Antonin Scalia, who died Feb. 13. Obama is expected to make a decision this week on the nomination. The White House declined comment for this report.  

Highlighting previous Iowa support for Obama’s nominee could add to the political pressure that Democrats are heaping on Grassley, who as Senate Judiciary chairman controls whether there will be confirmation hearings. Grassley, along with all other Republicans on the Judiciary Committee, sent a letter to Majority Leader Mitch McConnell of Kentucky stating they would not hold hearings on any Supreme Court nominee until the next president takes office.  

Obama reached into Grassley’s backyard when studying the potential nomination of Kelly, whom Grassley supported in her confirmation for the U.S. Court of Appeals for the 8th Circuit. Grassley, who is seeking re-election to a seventh Senate term, said last week that the potential nomination of Kelly was an “obvious political ploy” to get him to try to persuade Senate Republicans to hold hearings.  

Grassley spokeswoman Beth Levine, when asked about the Branstad-Garland connection, repeated a phrase the senator has used to indicate that the issue is about letting presidential voters decide who should fill the Supreme Court vacancy and the nominee doesn't change that.  

"It's the principle, not the person," Levine said in an email.  

Branstad included news clippings in his letter to Grassley, including a Legal Times article entitled “Garland, A Centrist Choice.”  

“Merrick Garland has had a distinguished legal career,” Branstad wrote in 1995. “Recently, he has been overseeing the federal investigation and prosecution efforts in the Oklahoma City bombing, having been sent there the second day after the blast occurred.”  

Garland was confirmed to the D.C. Circuit in 1997 with bipartisan support, including from Sen. Orrin G. Hatch, R-Utah, who said on the Senate floor that Garland’s “intelligence and his scholarship cannot be questioned.” He has been chief judge since 2013.  

Branstad, however, might not be as supportive this time if Garland is Obama’s pick. A spokesman for Branstad said Monday that the Iowa governor has no plans to get involved in the Supreme Court vacancy, which is a federal process.  

“The governor does not intend to weigh in or get involved in the process of selecting the next Supreme Court nominee,” said Ben Hammes, Branstad’s communications director.  

Obama’s short list is also said to include Sri Srinivasan, a D.C. Circuit judge who would be the first Asian-American justice if confirmed, and Paul Watford, a judge on the U.S. Court of Appeals for the 9th Circuit who would be the third African-American justice in court history if confirmed.  

Garland is a centrist and a fixture in Washington legal circles. He clerked for Supreme Court Justice William Brennan and worked in the Justice Department under Jimmy Carter, George H.W. Bush and Bill Clinton. As principal deputy attorney general starting in 1994, he led investigations into the Oklahoma City bombing and the Unabomber, Ted Kaczynski.

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