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‘Generational Intellect’: Meet Attorney General Merrick Garland ’74

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{shortcode-be29865d8a9c7908fa05930b7f2d42574eaa573c}f not for chemistry class, America’s lawyer may have been a doctor instead.

Attorney General Merrick B. Garland ’74 entered Harvard on the pre-med track, and — together with his freshman year roommate Earl P. Steinberg ’74 — began taking the requisite courses to become a doctor.

“I saw it as the best way to help people directly,” Garland, a former Crimson Editorial editor, wrote in an emailed statement to The Crimson. “Unfortunately, my academic passion did not match my academic ability – chemistry foiled my plan for a career in medicine.”

Steinberg suggested that Garland — whom he had known since kindergarten, and would room with throughout their time at Harvard — consider going into law.

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“I told him that, look, if he asked me, he ought to go into law,” he said. “I don't think he went into law because I suggested it, but because he’s such a logical thinker, and he writes exceptionally well.”

Garland’s academic skill was well established by his peers. In interviews with 11 of his friends, former classmates, and professors, he was repeatedly characterized as a man who struck others for his deep intellect — but also for his honesty and dependability, and for seeming to get along with everyone.

‘Once in a Generation’

Garland’s academic strength was hailed by those who knew him. His friends painted a glowing portrait of his “generational intellect” and talent while at the College — someone who everyone seemed to know he was going to go places in life.

“In sophomore year we lived in a quad in Quincy House and the phone rings, one day, and I answered it, and it was some professor from the Law School,” Steinberg said. The professor, who taught a law school seminar that Garland was enrolled in, was calling to deliver a grade.

“He said, ‘I was going to give it an A plus, but it really is the best paper I have ever read by an undergraduate,’” Steinberg said.

According to William J. “Jim” Adams ’69, a former instructor of Garlan’s, “Merrick Garland was the kind of student, who from a faculty member’s perspective — and certainly my perspective — comes along only once in a generation.”

“He’s the kind of student who makes you believe that being a teacher is absolutely the most satisfying of all possible careers,” Adams said.

Garland, who concentrated in Social Studies and wrote a thesis titled “Industrial reorganization in Britain; an interpretation of government/industry relations in the 1960’s,” would be inducted into Phi Beta Kappa and graduate summa cum laude.

‘A Guy That You Really Couldn’t Dislike’

Those who knew Garland also remembered him for his agreeable demeanor, with some noting that at a particularly politically charged time — in a particularly political House — Garland did not wade deep into controversy.

“Quincy House was the center of so much progressive activity,” said Norman “Norm” W. Gorin ’74. Quincy, Gorin said, was known for being the “political” house, full of government and economics majors — a hotbed of progressive activism during an era of historic student protests against the Vietnam War.

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But as controversy around the Vietnam War continued and then waned in the early ’70s, Garland largely stayed out of the ideological disputes prevailing on campus.

“I sometimes thought he kind of went out of his way not to be controversial. He just sort of shied away from a lot of the disputes that might have happened around the table those days,” Jonathan M. Stein ’74 said.

The young Garland would serve as the Quincy House representative to Harvard’s Committee on House and Undergraduate Life. CHUL representatives found themselves in a particularly fraught time, as the University attempted to navigate its relationship with Radcliffe College and grapple with the future of the Reserve Officers’ Training Corps, which had been eliminated on campus in 1969.

Garland would be a vocal participant — and peacemaker — on the committee.

“While he was engaged in the moment, he was never one to be taken away with passion,” said Roger W. Ferguson Jr. ’73, a friend of Garland’s.

“He was a very affable guy,” Stein said. “A guy who you really couldn't dislike. I mean, everybody liked Merrick.”

Garland’s peers from his time as an undergraduate also added he was — and still is — “authentic”.

“Merrick has never forgotten where he came from,” said Greg A. Rosenbaum ’74, another friend of Garland’s. Rosenbaum pointed to both Garland’s confirmation hearings, where he “was impassioned about his family history and his life growing up,” and how he made time to host high school debate champions at the Department of Justice.

“He still took time out of his busy day to meet with and honor these urban high school policy debaters because it reflected on where he came from,” Rosenbaum said.

Ferguson, who would later overlap with Garland on Harvard’s Board of Overseers — the University’s second-highest governing body — said Garland “is what he appears to be.”

“I’ve known him for 50 years,” Ferguson said. “He’s sort of always been that way.”

‘Very Honest, Very Effective, Very Efficient’

After leaving Harvard — he would get his law degree from Harvard Law School in 1977 after graduating from the College — Garland’s career has taken him from the halls of the Supreme Court to the Department of Justice, where he serves as the nation’s chief law enforcement officer.

As a newly-minted lawyer, Garland practiced as a private attorney before pursuing a career in the Justice Department. As principal associate deputy attorney general, Garland oversaw the prosecution of the Oklahoma City bombing case, where his senior thesis tutor Peter Gourevitch said he first appreciated his former student’s public service.

“I noticed his public fame, I think, when he was assigned to investigate the Oklahoma bombing,” he said. “The stories said that he was seen as very honest, very effective, very efficient, and very fair.”

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He would then serve as a chief judge on the U.S. Court of Appeals for the District of Columbia Circuit. During his time as a judge, President Barack Obama appointed him to the Supreme Court to fill the seat of the recently-deceased justice Antonin Scalia. Senate Republicans, though, obstructed his nomination, filling the seat instead with Neil Gorsuch, another HLS alum.

Thomas F. Brockmeyer ’74 – one of Garland’s Quincy House friends — said he found the situation “upsetting personally.”

“It just infuriated me — because of all the people that I thought would have belonged on the Supreme Court, and would have done a great job on it, he would certainly be at the top of the list,” Brockmeyer said.

Upon Joe Biden’s election in 2020, Biden tapped Garland to serve as Attorney General, and Garland agreed.

Garland wrote to The Crimson that his career in public service has allowed him to uphold and protect democracy.

“The promise at the foundation of our democracy is that the law will treat all of us alike,” Garland wrote. “Working to fulfill that promise, specifically by upholding the rule of law and helping to ensure the equal protection of law, has been the focus of my entire professional life.”

Despite his schedule and illustrious career, Garland has also remained involved with his alma mater. Along with a stint on the Board of Overseers — Garland would serve a year as president of the board, too — he returned to campus to give a Commencement speech at the make-up ceremony for the Classes of 2020 and 2021.

“The way I thought about it for myself was that someone who had no more right to a place at Harvard than thousands of others had an obligation to repay that piece of good fortune through service to others,” Garland wrote.

“I believe that all of us who ended up at Harvard were lucky in some way, and because of that, we have an obligation to give back by devoting some part of our lives to public service,” he added.

—Staff writer Sally E. Edwards can be reached at sally.edwards@thecrimson.com. Follow her on X @sallyedwards04 or on Threads @sally_edwards06.

—Staff writer Jack R. Trapanick can be reached at jack.trapanick@thecrimson.com. Follow him on X @jackrtrapanick.

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