US President Barack Obama nominated Merrick Garland to the US Supreme Court on Wednesday, saying he deserves a fair hearing in the Republican-dominated US Senate even in the midst of a heated presidential race.

Garland, currently chief judge of the US Circuit Court of Appeals in Washington, has already earned the respect and admiration of people across the political spectrum, Obama told reporters at the White House Wednesday.

"I’ve selected a nominee who is widely recognized not only as one of America’s sharpest legal minds, but someone who brings to his work a spirit of decency, modesty, integrity, even-handedness, and excellence," he said.

If confirmed by the US Senate, Garland would fill the vacancy on the nation's highest court created when justice Antonin Scalia died on February 13.

Since the death of the conservative justice, Senate Republican leaders have vowed not to hold hearings on any Obama nominee with the aim of delaying filling the vacancy until after the presidential election in November.

Obama said in making his selection he had undertaken a rigorous, cross-party process, which included reaching out to every member of the Senate Judiciary Committee and constitutional scholars.

Garland, 63, graduated from Harvard Law School with top honours, worked as a clerk for liberal Supreme Court Justice William J Brennan Jr and was a partner at a prominent Washington law firm before leaving to join the Justice Department as assistant to the US attorney general.

In that role Obama said Garland went after corrupt politicians and drug dealers before taking on the investigation and prosecution of the 1995 Oklahoma City bombing case, one of the biggest domestic terrorism cases in US history.

Garland's nomination to the appeals court he now serves on was approved by the Senate by a vote of 76-23 in 1997. He is expected to face a fierce confirmation battle for the life-time appointment to the Supreme Court due to partisan fighting in the middle of an election year.

Senate Republicans want to prevent Obama, a Democrat in the final months of his eight years in office, from filling the gap left by the staunchly conservative Scalia on the court.

Scalia had tipped the balance toward a 5-4 conservative majority among the court's nine judges and was known for a strict interpretation of the original intent of the constitution.

Obama said he recognized that the United States had entered the political season, but argued that for the Senate to refuse to consider his nominee would be "a betrayal of our best traditions and a betrayal of our founding documents."

He asked the Senate to "play it straight," adding that the Supreme Court is supposed to be above politics.

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