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Obama unveils Garland as Supreme Court pick

[WASHINGTON] President Barack Obama will on Wednesday tap the centrist judge Merrick Garland as his pick to fill the Supreme Court vacancy left by late conservative justice Antonin Scalia, setting the stage for an election-year showdown with Republicans.

According to White House officials, after weeks of deliberation Obama will tap a former prosecutor they say "has more federal judicial experience than any other Supreme Court nominee in history." The nomination comes even as Obama girded for a brutal battle with the Senate, where the Republican majority has vowed to ignore his selection.

The Republican party's leadership has insisted the nomination should be made by Obama's successor in the White House, who takes office in less than a year.

Filling the vacancy could be one of the most consequential actions of Obama's presidency, with the potential to tip the balance from majority conservative to liberal.

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"Throughout his career, Chief Judge Garland has shown a rare ability to bring people together and has earned the respect of everyone he has worked with," White House officials said.

"No one is better suited to immediately serve on the Supreme Court." Garland's appointment leaves Republicans with a tough task of ignoring someone they have already confirmed once for lower office and who has publicly opposed the judicial activism they claim to resist.

At the age of 63, Garland also offers them the tantalizing prospect of a candidate that would be expected to serve less time on the bench than some of the younger names floated.

Obama will make formally announce his selection at 11:00 am (1500 GMT).

In a preview statement Obama said his candidate would be "eminently qualified to sit on the Supreme Court." "I've devoted a considerable amount of time and deliberation to this decision. I've consulted with legal experts and people across the political spectrum, both inside and outside government. And we've reached out to every member of the Senate, who each have a responsibility to do their job and take this nomination just as seriously." The deadlock virtually ensures that the issue will feature prominently in the 2016 election campaign.

Even before Obama's announcement the two sides had been honing their arguments.

Obama for his part, insists that he is mandated by law to make a nomination for the position.

"As president, it is both my constitutional duty to nominate a justice and one of the most important decisions that I - or any president - will make," he said in Wednesday's statement.

Supreme Court justices are appointed for life and the body's rulings can powerfully influence the treatment of major social issues in America.

Scalia, 79, the intellectual leader of the court's conservative faction, died unexpectedly of natural causes on February 13.

Scalia's death abruptly ended the conservatives' 5-4 advantage on the high court, giving Obama an opportunity to appoint his third justice after Sonia Sotomayor and Elena Kagan.