Merrick Garland had some stories to tell, the sort that one accrues over four decades as a litigator in private practice, a prosecutor, and a federal appellate judge.
And so, looking out at the standing-room-only crowd in the University of Chicago Law School’s courtroom Friday afternoon, the chief judge of the DC Circuit Court of Appeals talked about the Department of Justice job that put him at the helm of two high-profile domestic terrorism cases, describing the capture of Unabomber Ted Kaczynski and the aftermath of the Oklahoma City bombing. He told students how leaving a lucrative law firm partnership for public service felt like “jumping off a cliff” but was ultimately worth it, talked about why government needs both political appointees and career staff, and brought down the house by recounting the time he asked Harry Potter author J.K. Rowling if the gemstone ring on her hand was a horcrux.
What he didn’t discuss: either current politics or his 2016 nomination to the US Supreme Court, a deeply contentious process that led President Obama to visit the Law School to make a national pitch for Garland from the Green Lounge.
Instead, Garland, who appeared as part of the Law School’s Edward Levi Distinguished Visiting Jurist Program, offered a sweeping look at what it means to serve the public as a lawyer and judge, peppering his tales with humor, insight, and career advice.
“You will find that whatever you think you’re going to be as a lawyer, you will probably be wrong—you’ll do something different,” said Garland, who appeared beside his former law clerk Justin Driver, the Harry N. Wyatt Professor of Law, for the hour-long question-and-answer event. “You should take as many black-letter courses as you can … Having a broad array of basic legal knowledge will help you make those [career] transitions.”
Garland talked about his own career path—from his early interest in medicine, which he said he rethought after taking chemistry in college, to his clerkships with Judge Henry Friendly of the US Court of Appeals for the Second Circuit and Supreme Court Justice William Brennan, to his decision to leave Arnold & Porter to become an assistant US attorney in the District of Columbia. He returned to the law firm briefly, he told students, but was drawn back to public service in 1993, first as a deputy assistant attorney general in the Department of Justice’s Criminal Division and then as principal deputy to US Deputy Attorney General Jamie Gorelick.
It was in that role that he worked on the Oklahoma City bombing and Unabomber investigations, two of the highest profile cases he handled as a prosecutor. (Garland, who was appointed by President Clinton, joined the US Court of Appeals for the District of Columbia in 1997, taking the seat vacated by Law School alumnus Abner J. Mikva, ’51.)
Leading students through the events of April 19, 1995, when a truck-bomb attack on the Alfred P. Murrah Federal Building in Oklahoma City killed 168 people, Garland described both the tragedy and investigation.
“It was a horrific event,” Garland said, “but there were some lucky breaks in the case.” Just two blocks from the scene, investigators discovered an axle from the Ryder truck Timothy McVeigh and his co-conspirator had used in the attack, and that clue led them to the truck rental facility. A sketch artist created a rendering of the man who had rented the truck and “we ended up with a picture that looked an awful lot like Timothy McVeigh,” Garland said. Investigators went to nearby motels with the sketch and finally identified McVeigh, who had registered under his own name. (He had, however, used the same fake name to rent the truck and order Chinese food, Garland said, which helped convince investigators that they had found their target.)
Garland, who was en route to Oklahoma City when the FBI took custody of McVeigh two days after the attack, handled the preliminary hearing that night in a temporary courtroom at the nearby Tinker Air Force Base, which was set up because the courthouse had been damaged by the blast. McVeigh was later convicted and executed.
Garland also described the tough decisions he and others confronted in the Unabomber case, including during the raid on Kaczynski’s Montana cabin. The previous autumn, the New York Times and Washington Post had published the then-anonymous manuscript known as the Unabomber Manifesto, a decision the attorney general and FBI director had supported in hopes that it would produce leads. Kaczynski’s brother had come forward saying he suspected that his brother might be the author, and the subsequent investigation led to the cabin raid on April 3, 1996.
It was an evening Garland said he remembers well: it was Passover, and he’d invited Attorney General Janet Reno to his seder.
“About half an hour in, we get a call from Louis Freeh, the FBI director, saying, ‘We’re in the cabin,’” Garland said. “They searched, and they found various things that could be described as bomb-making material, and they wanted to arrest [Kaczynski] as the Unabomber. We said, ‘You can’t prove he’s the Unabomber—keep looking.’ And so they looked some more, and they found a lot of bomb-making material, and we were discussing whether to arrest him for having bomb-making material, and then Freeh calls back. He said, ‘We have the original manuscript.’”
It was a real lesson, Garland told students: “You can read about criminal law as much as you want, but sitting around a table trying to figure out whether you have enough probable cause to search the cabin—that was a really complicated problem.”
Some of Garland’s stories, however, were lighter, including the one about Rowling. In 2008, as a member of Harvard’s Board of Overseers, Garland had successfully recommended that Harvard give Rowling an honorary degree—the accomplishment that has “gotten me the most status in the eyes of my daughters,” he said. At the cocktail party for the 10 honorary degree recipients, a crowd gathered around Rowling—and it was then that Garland spotted her ring and, to the horror of those around him, asked if she’d worn a horcrux.
As Garland recalled partygoers’ shocked reactions and Rowling’s matter-of-fact reply (she’d never thought about it, but the gemstone did seem rather horcrux-like, she agreed), the Law School audience roared with laughter.
The event was a satisfying complement of great storytelling and good advice, said Lael Weinberger, ’18.
“Judge Garland encouraged us to be willing to make big career changes, to go where we see a need—and to avoid golden handcuffs so that we’re in a position to make a change,” Weinberger said, adding that he also appreciated Garland’s willingness to offer substantive replies even when declining to comment on recent events.
At one point, in response to a question about threats to political and legal traditions, Garland politely steered clear of current politics and then explained that, in general, the government needs both long-term staff and those who are brought in by elected officials.
“I think the government has to be made up of both political appointees who execute the policy of the people who are elected, and … career people who have the historical memory of each of the departments,” he said, noting that he has held both types of roles.
He then turned the conversation back to career choice, adding: “I greatly respect” both roles, and “urge my law clerks to choose whichever of these paths appeal to them.”