In the fall of 1970, a mild-mannered boy from Illinois moved into his Grays Hall suite in Harvard Yard. In his entry in the Freshman Register, he sports a plaid blazer and a striped tie, his hair parted neatly to the side. The text next to his name reads, “Merrick Brian Garland… Major: Pre-Medicine.”
As a pre-med freshman, Merrick B. Garland ’74 likely did not see himself going to law school, let alone standing at the side of the United States President in 2016 as a nominee for the U.S. Supreme Court.
But while he may have spent his first semester nervously anticipating organic chemistry, signs of the rhetorical skills that would shape Garland’s judicial career were apparent early on. Garland joined Harvard’s Debate Council at the urging of Greg A. Rosenbaum ’74; the two had met at the prestigious Northwestern University Summer Debate Institute in 1969.
Harvard debate was an intensive activity. Debate council members often arrived on campus early in August to hunker down in their office in Quincy House—which a Crimson article once likened to “a basement grotto”—for hours of extensive research in preparation for weekend tournaments.
Garland quickly threw himself into the club, and entered a tournament early in the season with one of Rosenbaum’s friends. The pair went undefeated in the preliminary rounds and won the tournament, according to Rosenbaum, but the victory would be Garland’s last. He stopped competing after that tournament to focus on his studies—an early retirement that would carve out a place for Garland in the club’s history. “He has the distinction of being the only debate member in Harvard Debate Council history to retire undefeated,” Rosenbaum says.
Although Garland stepped back from the competitive debate circuit, he remained involved in extracurriculars. Garland was elected as a representative for the entire freshman class on the Committee for House and Undergraduate Life, a group that consisted of students and faculty members. According to Robert M. Olian ’74, Garland’s sophomore year roommate, the committee functioned as a “sounding board” for the administration.
When he wasn’t deliberating in committee, Garland spent time with classmates who would later become his core group of friends, at Harvard and beyond. Garland’s freshman roommate, Earl P. Steinberg, had been a friend since childhood. The two of them had met Olian at a reception for admitted students in the Chicago area during their senior year of high school. The Midwestern trio, along with close friend Jonathan B. Mark ’74, were assigned to Quincy House at the end of their freshman year.
Sophomore year, the foursome had the “absolute last pick” in Quincy’s rooming lottery, Olian said. “We got this room that was back by the garbage loading docks,” he says.
Quincy was a relatively new House, described in a 1977 yearbook as “genial without being clubby,” and outfitted with many impressive “attractions.” These included a library with its own SR 50 calculator, pinball machines, Music 1 tapes, and a stereo with a turntable. Quincy residents enjoyed sherry and “Milk-and-Cookies-and-Melba-Toast” study breaks with House masters Elaine Dunn and Charles W. Dunn. According to Rosenbaum, who also lived in Quincy, “Celtic spirit” was a prominent aspect of House life, as Dunn was a professor of Celtic Languages and Literature. The 1977 yearbook recounts an annual “exorcism tradition,” which featured “bagpipe music and incantations to banish the evil spirits from all of Quincy House.”
In addition to pinball machines and Celtic ceremonies, Quincy was home to a large number of Harvard’s debaters. Because the Debate Council’s office was located in the basement of Quincy, Dunn would often select members of the group to live there, Rosenbaum said. Although Garland quit competing as a debater, he remained involved in the group. “Merrick was always around,” Rosenbaum says. “He always took an interest in how the debate thing was doing.”
On an average Friday night, Garland could be found spending time with his roommates in Quincy. Rosenbaum remembers the foursome as a particularly tight-knit group. Olian attributes many fond college memories to time spent in the room, including Garland’s brief stint in Harvard’s karate club. Garland never earned a black belt, but he would sometimes return home after karate lessons and practice his new moves on his suitemates.
“I have no idea what it means to be good at karate,” Olian says. “But all the moves seemed to work.”
Garland did not belong to a final club, but two of his roommates were members of the Spee—he and Olian would attend the occasional party or poker game there. Although Garland kept a small circle of close friends and was intensely dedicated to his studies, he was a social and well-liked resident of Quincy House. “He wasn’t nerdy or bookish or anything like that,” Olian recalls. “People were always happy to sit around and shoot the breeze with him for an hour after dinner.”
Garland continued his involvement with the committee for House and undergraduate life as a representative from Quincy House, sounding off on issues that ranged from wall painting in dormitories to the gender imbalance in the House system. Other members of committee recall that Garland provided a crucial mediating voice in the discussion of the latter topic. After Harvard and Radcliffe merged, some committee representatives believed that continuing to house women in the Quad would help preserve Radcliffe’s identity. Others wanted to integrate women into the River Houses, especially as the ratio of men to women (4:1 in 1973) began to shrink.
“Merrick Garland was tasked with trying to persuade both groups to make it more of a co-educational experience for all concerned,” says Mitchell L. Wolfe ’74, who represented Lowell House. “He was very strong and very well respected by a variety of interest groups on campus—radical feminists, the preppies, the jocks.”
Within the committee for House and undergraduate life, Garland was known for his eloquence and his ability to arbitrate contentious discussions. Mark A. Borreliz ’74, who represented Eliot House, calls Garland “quietly authoritative.”
“He has this ability to synthesize beautifully, to bridge both sides of a debate,” Borreliz says. “You would shut up and listen to what he had to say, and at the end, you would feel like, ‘There’s nothing more to be said about this.’”
Many colleagues and classmates characterize Garland as exceptionally bright, but also humble, able to acknowledge all viewpoints in a debate. “He was generous,” Borreliz recalls. “He would dignify even the inane things that I might have offered.”
In 1973, the committee faced one of the more controversial issues of the era when the inflammatory debate over the Reserve Officers' Training Corps at the College threatened to resurface. Anti-war sentiment in 1969 had fueled mass protests calling for the program’s removal, stoking tensions and polarizing the school in the process. After then-University President Nathan M. Pusey infamously called in the Cambridge police to disband several hundred students occupying University Hall, the Faculty voted to strip ROTC of privileges typically accorded to extracurriculars—effectively banning it from campus.
Several years later, comments by Derek C. Bok—who had taken over as University President after Pusey retired in 1971—about the program’s merits brought the specter of ROTC back. The Harvard Republican Club launched a campaign to restore the program, while ROTC opponents in the New America Movement called on the committee for House and undergraduate life to hold a referendum among undergraduates to vote on permanently outlawing ROTC. After receiving assurances from Bok that the ROTC issue would not re-emerge, committee members ultimately voted against holding the referendum. Garland, who had initially placed the referendum on the committee's agenda, joined the majority of his colleagues in this vote.
While the College eventually re-established ROTC programs in 2011 and 2012, the old debate resurfaced yet again this year in the wake of Garland’s nomination, as Republicans point to Garland’s role in the 1973 iteration as an indication that the judge held anti-military attitudes.
“McDonald’s Offers Hamburger Reward for Pints of Blood,” reads a headline in a 1973 issue of The Crimson. The story, which details the upcoming Harvard-Radcliffe Blood Drive, is one of several Crimson articles that features Garland’s byline. Throughout his undergraduate years, Garland wrote some news stories, and contributed more frequently to The Crimson’s Editorial section.
William S. Beckett ’73, former Editorial chair of The Crimson, remembers Garland as a strong and diligent writer. Though Garland occasionally opined on newsworthy topics such as the integration of Harvard and Radcliffe, he mainly wrote theater reviews (which were then also published by the Editorial Board). A production of “The Homecoming” at the Boston Center for the Arts won Garland’s high praise for “waging a war on intellectual complacency.” Harvard’s first all-freshman production, “The Fantasticks,” fell flat. “One has the feeling he ought to be laughing just a bit more than he is,” Garland writes.
While some editors preferred to socialize at the Crimson building, Garland would keep to himself. “Some people liked to stay at The Crimson for hours just to hang out, but he wasn’t one of them,” Beckett recalls. “He just wrote a lot of articles.”
When he wasn’t participating in extracurriculars, Garland was often engrossed in studies—he abandoned the pre-med track after freshman year, but took on a challenging curriculum as a Social Studies concentrator. Garland’s commitment to academics earned him the Detur Prize in his sophomore year at Harvard. As a junior, he was inducted to Phi Beta Kappa, the nation’s oldest honors society for liberal arts undergraduates.
Garland’s undergraduate education culminated in a 167-page senior thesis about the relationship between government policy and private-sector mergers in Britain. Peter Gourevitch, Garland’s thesis tutor, remembers him as “a tutor’s dream student.”
Garland began his thesis by presenting an unusual phenomenon of the mid-century British economy. In 1959, there were 12 major automobile manufacturers and nine major computer firms in England. Nine years later, there was only one of each. In the following 166 pages, Garland examined the causes of this economic anomaly.
“The purpose of this thesis is to determine the relationship between government policy and such private-sector mergers,” Garland wrote. “The thesis, built around three competing interpretations of that relationship, seeks to arrange the evidence in such a way as to permit a choice of the best of these interpretations.”
Gourevitch, who now teaches at University of California, San Diego, says that Garland’s undergraduate thesis would have made an impressive master’s degree thesis. He describes his relationship with Garland as professional in nature, but he recalls that he was “idealistic in a serious way” as a college senior.
“I don’t mean grandiosely idealistic,” Gourevitch says. “I mean very serious about a better world, in a way that was very understanding of how political economy actually worked.”
Graduating from the College did not mark the end of Garland’s Harvard days—Garland moved back into the Yard in the fall of 1974 as a first-year Law student and proctor in Matthews Hall.
Garland entered Harvard Law School the year after the premier of the movie “The Paper Chase,” which painted the Law School as a cut-throat environment with rigorous discussion, intimidating professors, and fierce competition for grades.
Elements of this climate persisted throughout Garland’s time at the school; an introductory essay to the yearbook in 1977—the year Garland graduated—characterized the institution as “basically conservative,” still tied to traditional methods of teaching that divorced the law from morals and politics.
But Garland did not enter this environment alone. A number of his college friends continued on to law school with him, some of whom he had met even before freshman year. Rosenbaum recalled that out of the 12 students who were in their advanced debate theory seminar at Northwestern in the summer of 1969, seven ended up in the same section at the Law School. “It was sort of like an advanced debate theory reunion when we got to HLS,” Rosenbaum says.
At the time, first-years—or 1Ls, as they are called in law school—were divided into four sections of about 135 students each. Students took classes with their section, and all but one were mandatory. Garland’s section took Contracts with Professor Roberto M. Unger, Civil Procedure with Professor David L. Shapiro, Criminal Law with Professor Lloyd L. Weinreb, and Property with Professor Frank Michelman. “I've ever since remembered [Garland] for the exceptional quality and caliber of his work as a student,” Michelman, who retired from teaching in 2012, wrote in an email to The Crimson.
Richard A. Briffault, a classmate in Garland’s section who now teaches at Columbia Law School, remembers Garland as a serious and engaged student who was confident enough to speak up and meet the challenges of Socratic instruction.“He spoke a fair amount in class. He had questions, he had answers,” Briffault says. “These were very big classes, and he was a fairly active participant in those classes.”
Given his stellar academic performance, it was not surprising that Garland was selected at the end of his first year to join the Harvard Law Review. Back then, the organization was “a blind meritocracy,” according to Cheryl A. LaFleur, who was a year behind Garland on the Review. Second-year student editors would invite the top five or six students in each 1L section to join on the basis of their grades.
Editors have produced the Review in Gannett House, a small white building with Greek Revival columns, since the 1920s. Working on the Law Review was intense and time-consuming, and many editors arrived on campus in July to get to work on a tight production schedule in order to produce eight issues a year, each totaling roughly 2,500 pages.
Despite the Review’s reputation as the stomping ground of the Law School’s elite, a playful and self-deprecating blurb in the 1976-1977 Law School yearbook describes the publication’s work as “sometimes monotonous yet occasionally fascinating.”
A photo of the Law Review members in the yearbook shows a 24-year-old Garland smiling in the middle of the first row. That year, Garland was one of several articles editors—a position at the second highest level of the organization’s hierarchy that entailed editing pieces submitted by outside contributors, including prominent lawyers and judges.
This position afforded Garland a status as a leader among his peers and a serious and trustworthy member of the Review staff, LaFleur says. She remembers Garland as “one of the standouts for being a brainiac,” and in a high-pressure atmosphere with the propensity to get tense, Garland’s knack for arbitrating again proved useful.
“There were a lot of very big personalities on the Law Review, and we spent a lot of time locked in Gannett House trying to get out eight issues a year, and Merrick was kind of a calm, stabilizing personality,” LaFleur says.
Many editors of the Law Review have gone on to serve as Supreme Court justices. Stephen Breyer was an articles editor, Elena Kagan was a supervising editor, John G. Roberts, Jr. was managing editor, Antonin G. Scalia was notes editor, and Ruth Bader Ginsburg was an editor for a year before transferring to Columbia Law School. And U.S. President Barack Obama—the man who would one day nominate Garland to join their ranks—served as the Review’s president in 1991.
After graduating in 1977, Garland got a clerkship with U.S. circuit court Judge Henry J. Friendly—the first step in a career that would lead him closer to a position on the nation’s highest court.
As Garland rose through the ranks of private practice, the Department of Justice, and finally the D.C. Circuit Court of Appeals, he maintained strong ties to Harvard. Rosenbaum said Garland remained active in alumni affairs in D.C., attending and occasionally speaking at reunion and admitted students events. “[He] was always happy to talk about Harvard, and obviously very proud of his Harvard connections,” Rosenbaum said.
Garland was first elected to the Board of Overseers—the University’s second-highest governing body—in 2003, and served as president of the body during the 2009-2010 academic year.
“He was extremely well-respected as an Overseer,” Rosenbaum said. “While what happens in the meetings of the Board of Overseers or the Corporation is private, people I know on the inside always spoke very highly of Merrick’s calm demeanor, his analytical method for coming to a conclusion about how the University should handle a decision, and his subtle ability to persuade.”
Some of Garland’s remaining connections to Harvard are less formal in nature. He has stayed close to his friends from college, and even officiated the recent wedding of his former roommate’s daughter. According to Olian, Garland “did a great job” conducting the ceremony, interspersing his trademark humor into the nuptials.
“I’m Merrick Garland, I’m chief judge of the D.C. Circuit Court of Appeals, and I’m an old friend of the Steinberg family, but if you read the newspapers, I’m just old,” Garland introduced himself.
Garland spoke publicly at another, very different event a few weeks prior. Standing next to Obama in the White House Rose Garden, Garland tearfully accepted the president’s nomination, calling it “the greatest honor of my life, other than Lynn agreeing to marry me 28 years ago.”
Although he is at the center of one of the more contentious partisan conflicts in recent memory, those who know Garland consistently characterize him as a steady and humble presence and a skilled mediator—just as he was when he first walked into Harvard Yard 45 years ago.
"He’s a very well-intentioned guy, there’s no facade to him,” Olian says. “You don’t get the sense that you’re talking to this guy who’s on the cusp of being on the United States Supreme Court.”