WESTPORT — The nomination of Merrick Garland by President Obama to fill a U.S. Supreme Court vacancy struck a chord with Westport resident Kristan Peters-Hamlin.

Peters-Hamlin, a District 4 member of the Representative Town Meeting, worked with Garland — now the chief judge of the U.S. Court of Appeals for the District of Columbia Circuit — when they both were assistant attorneys in the U.S. Attorney’s Office for Washington, D.C., in the early 1990s.

Garland’s nomination to succeed the late Justice Antonin Scalia is now mired in controversy, stuck at the center of a political tug-of-war between Obama and the Republican-controlled Senate, which is refusing to conduct hearings or vote on it.

Peters-Hamlin, who lauded both Garland’s legal skills and character, said he took an uncommon path to the U.S. Attorney’s Office. After graduating from law school, Garland clerked for Judge Henry Friendly of the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Second Circuit and then for Supreme Court Justice William Brennan Jr. After serving as special assistant to Attorney General Benjamin Civiletti for two years, Garland became a corporate litigation partner at Arnold & Porter for a number of years and then became an assistant U.S. attorney.

"When he came to the U.S. Attorney’s Office in Washington, D.C., he had already been a partner at one of the most prestigious law firms in Washington, D.C. That was a highly unusual track," Peters-Hamlin recalled.

"For one thing, he was far more senior than the other AUSAs, but also the only AUSAs who were partners before they came over were the ones who were in the civil division of the U.S. Attorney’s Office (Garland prosecuted criminal cases). With the exception of one other guy I didn’t know anybody else who did that," she added.

The other lawyer who Peters-Hamlin said took the same path from partner to criminal prosecutor at the U.S. Attorney’s Office in Washington, D.C., was Robert Mueller, who later served as the FBI director for 12 years.

Not only did Garland’s legal expertise make him a standout, his character was top-notch, according to Peters-Hamlin.

"Merrick was somebody who was just a gentleman and was no-nonsense. He was not politicized or very political about things at all and he was just about respect for the law, hard work and just a great, keen intellect," she said.

Given the high murder rate in the nation’s capital, Peters-Hamlin said it was imperative for the AUSAs to work as a team to combat it.

"A prosecutor’s office is very cohesive, there’s a strong esprit de corps because you know we were living and prosecuting at the time in the homicide capital of the nation, Washington, D.C., there was a crack epidemic at that time and even though there were only like 800,000 people in the town at the time, there were like five to seven murders a night … we were just fighting an unbelievable amount of crime," Peters-Hamlin recalled.

Around the office Peters-Hamlin said that Garland had an aura of legal stardom, yet remained humble.

"Everybody knew of Merrick Garland and he was just somebody who had everybody’s respect. He’s a lawyer’s lawyer and just decent, not arrogant at all and a centrist, but on criminal issues he’s a bit right of center.” she said. “I think he was like a prosecutor’s prosecutor."

After the 1995 bombing of the federal building in Oklahoma City, Garland was named the principal associate deputy attorney general and insisted on going there the next day to start investigating the terrorist attack. Garland coordinated every aspect of the government’s response working with federal agents, rescue workers and local officials according to the White House. He did not directly prosecute the case, but managed it in a supervisory role from the Department of Justice in Washington, D.C.

Garland graduated summa cum laude from Harvard College, magna cum laude from Harvard Law School and was a member of the Harvard Law Review where he was the articles editor. He has served on the U.S. Court of Appeals for the District of Columbia Circuit since 1997 and has been the court’s chief judge since 2013.

@chrismmarquette / cmarquette@bcnnew.com