The National Rifle Association opposes Supreme Court nominee Merrick Garland because, the group claims, he is an activist judge who does not support the Second Amendment and would work to dismantle it.

One of the gun group’s top lawyers, Charles J. Cooper, has a decidedly different point of view. He once said he considers Garland an exceptional judge who “fairly and honestly assesses the merits of all sides of an issue.”

In an interview with The Washington Post over the weekend, Cooper said his high opinion of Garland “has only strengthened” over time.

Cooper has represented the gun rights organization in some of its most high-profile cases, including those against the Federal Election Commission and the Bureau Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives. (Ted Cruz once served as a junior associate in his firm, and worked closely with him on Second Amendment litigation.) He met Garland in the 1970s, when they each served as clerks for sitting Supreme Court Justices — Garland for William Brennan and Cooper for William Rehnquist.

In 1995, President Bill Clinton nominated Garland to serve on the to the U.S. Court of Appeals for Washington, D.C. Cooper wrote a letter to the Senate Judiciary Committee in support of his old friend.

The letter, excerpted from the Congressional Record for March 19, 1997, reads as follows:

I write to express my support for President Clinton’s nomination of Merrick Garland to the position of circuit Judge of the United States Court of Appeals for the District of Columbia. I’ve known Merrick since 1978, when we served as law clerks to Supreme Court Justices — he for Justice Brennan and I for Justice (now Chief Justice) Rehnquist. Like our respective bosses, Merrick and I disagreed on many legal issues. Still, I believe that Merrick possesses the qualities of a fine judge.

You are no doubt well aware of the details of Merrick’s background as a practicing lawyer, a federal prosecutor, a law teacher, and now a high-ranking official of the Department of Justice. This varied background has given Merrick a breadth and depth of legal experience that few lawyers his age can rival, and he has distinguished himself in all of his professional pursuits. He is a man of great learning, not just in the law, but also in other disciplines. Not only is Merrick enormously gifted intellectually, but he is thoughtful as well, for he respects other points of view and fairly and honestly assesses the merits of all sides of an issue. And he has a stable, even-tempered, and courteous manner. He would comport himself on the bench with dignity and fairness. In short, I believe that Merrick Garland will be among President Clinton’s very best judicial appointments.

The letter came more than a decade before Garland heard the two cases that the NRA and Republicans have singled out as evidence of his anti-gun position: In 2000, Garland ruled the government had the right to maintain background check records. In 2007, he voted in favor of a full-court review of a decision by a three-judge panel that overturned Washington, D.C.’s handgun ban.

Legal experts have said that these decisions, rather than proof of an anti-gun bias, are much more likely evidence that Garland is a careful jurist who respects precedent. On Sunday, Cooper told the Post that his opinion of Garland “has not changed — indeed, it has only strengthened — over the course of the 19 years since I wrote these words.”

He added: “The qualities that I saw in Merrick Garland as a nominee to the D.C. Circuit have been displayed in abundance by Judge Garland as a member of that court.”

Cooper stopped short of calling on Republican leaders to vote to confirm Garland to the Supreme Court. He said in the interview that he agrees with Republican leaders who maintain that the vacant seat on the Supreme Court should be filled by the next President in order to “give the people a voice.”

[Photo: AP Photo/J. Scott Applewhite]