Merrick Garland's 6 Most Important D.C. Cir. Opinions

By Casey C. Sullivan, Esq. on March 16, 2016 | Last updated on March 21, 2019

Ladies and gentlemen, we have a Supreme Court nominee. This morning, President Obama put forth Merrick Garland, Chief Judge of the D.C. Circuit, as a potential replacement for the seat vacated more than a month ago, when Justice Antonin Scalia passed away.

Garland is a moderate liberal, respected as a "brilliant" jurist by attorneys, judges, and politicians of all stripes. And in his nineteen years on the D.C. Circuit, he's had plenty of time to build that reputation. So let's take a look at some of Judge Merrick Garland's most important D.C. Circuit opinions.

1. Guantanamo Detainees: Al Odah v. United States

As of the last wide-ranging survey we could find, no opinion authored by Judge Garland has been overruled by the Supreme Court. But some high profile decisions he has joined have been, most notably, 2003's Al Odah ruling. There, Judge Garland was part of a D.C. Circuit panel that found federal courts could not hear habeas corpus petitions from Guantanamo detainees. Al Odah was consolidated with Boumediene v. Bush and overturned by the Supreme Court in 2008.

2. Drone Strikes: ACLU v. CIA

Taking a different approach to the War on Terror in ACLU v. CIA, Garland ruled here that the Central Intelligence Agency must acknowledge the existence of records related to drone strikes. The American Civil Liberties Union had filed a Freedom of Information Act suit against the CIA, seeking the records, but the agency refused to confirm or deny whether any records even existed. Garland didn't buy it, saying that no one would believe the CIA had no drone strike records. "The defendant is, after all, the Central Intelligence Agency," he wrote.

3. Enemy Combatants: Parhat v. Gates

A few years after the Al Odah case, Judge Garland ruled that suspects could not be held as enemy combatants without strong evidence of connection to terrorist ties. This was the first time a court had overturned a finding by the Combatant Status Review Tribunal, establishing the guidelines for who could and could not be denied access to civil justice as an enemy combatant.

4. Air Pollution: Sierra Club v. EPA

Judge Garland is a centrist, but he sometimes moves away from the middle of the road. He's generally conservative when it comes to criminal law and, as Sierra Club v. EPA shows, more liberal on environmental issues. Here, Judge Garland sided with environmentalists, finding that the EPA had failed to take enough action to reduce ozone pollution. The EPA could not approve air pollution plans that "did nothing more than promise to do tomorrow what the [Clean Air] Act requires today," he wrote.

5. Campaign Finance: Wagner v. Federal Election Commission

If Obama is looking for a justice that might help overturn Citizens United, Wagner could give us some slight proof of how Judge Garland might be leaning. Here, in an opinion authored by Garland, the D.C. Circuit upheld provisions of the Federal Election Campaign Act that banned campaign donations from federal contractors. It was hardly a radical position -- the case was decided unanimously, en banc -- but it shows that Garland may be open to greater restrictions on campaign finances.

6. The Second Amendment: Parker v. D.C. Review

Alright, this one isn't really an opinion, but you'll be hearing a lot about Garland's connection to D.C. v. Heller in the upcoming days. That decision, holding that the Second Amendment created an individual right to bear arms, came from a challenge to D.C.'s gun control laws. After the D.C. Circuit struck down those laws -- when the case was titled Parker v. D.C. -- Garland voted to rehear it en banc.

Some take that as proof that Garland would roll back Second Amendment rights. It leads to the conclusion that he "would vote to reverse one of Justice Scalia's most important opinions, D.C. v. Heller," the National Review wrote last week.

We're not buying it, though. A vote to rehear en banc shouldn't be taken as a position on the case's merits, nor as evidence of how a judge may rule in the future.

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