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Biden’s Pick for Attorney General No Stranger to Washington Politics

U.S. Supreme Court nominee Judge Merrick Garland walks after a breakfast with Senate Judiciary Committee Chair Senator Chuck Grassley (R-IA) on Capitol Hill Washington.

U.S. President Joe Biden’s pick for attorney general, Merrick Garland, is no stranger to Washington politics.

He rose to national prominence in late 2016 when Republicans in Congress blocked his nomination by then-President Barack Obama to a seat on the Supreme Court.

Garland, a federal appellate judge, is once again in the limelight and on the verge of taking on a high-profile position, this time as attorney general – essentially the nation’s top law enforcement officer.

Garland said he agreed to take the job of attorney general after being assured by both Biden and Vice President Kamala Harris that the Justice Department would retain its independence from political interference.

Biden said of his nominee in January, “Your loyalty is not to me,” and apparent dig at former President Donald Trump who demanded loyalty of his Cabinet members.

“It’s to the law, to the Constitution, to the people of this nation,” Biden said.

Judicial background

Garland, 68, is the chief judge of the U.S. Court of Appeals for the D.C. Circuit, sometimes called the “second highest court in the land'' in part because of the frequency with which its judges ascend to the Supreme Court just a few blocks away.

After graduating from Harvard College and Harvard Law School, Garland clerked for two appointees of Republican President Dwight D. Eisenhower: the liberal U.S. Supreme Court Justice William Brennan Jr. and Judge Henry J. Friendly, for whom Chief Justice John Roberts also clerked. Before becoming a judge himself, he was a prosecutor and supervised Justice Department investigations into the 1995 Oklahoma City bombing and Unabomber Ted Kaczynski.

Attorney General nominee Judge Merrick Garland speaks during an event with President-elect Joe Biden and Vice President-elect Kamala Harris at The Queen theater in Wilmington, Del, Jan. 7, 2021.
Attorney General nominee Judge Merrick Garland speaks during an event with President-elect Joe Biden and Vice President-elect Kamala Harris at The Queen theater in Wilmington, Del, Jan. 7, 2021.

His background made him popular even with Republicans when he was nominated to the D.C. Circuit by President Bill Clinton. Garland was confirmed to the post in 1997 by a vote of 76-23 with 32 Republicans voting in favor of his nomination.

However, in 2016, when then-President Barack Obama nominated Garland to a vacant seat on the Supreme Court, Republican Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell refused to even hold hearings on the nomination. McConnell argued that the winner of the 2016 election, which turned out to be Donald Trump, should be able to nominate the next Supreme Court member, a move that infuriated Democratic senators.

Garland’s nomination lasted 293 days, the longest to date, and the seat for which he was nominated was eventually filled by Neil Gorsuch, appointed by Trump.

Challenges ahead

Garland’s selection forces Senate Republicans to deal with the nomination of someone they once snubbed.

After his two-day confirmation hearing before the Senate Judiciary Committee, members will vote on his nomination March 1.

If confirmed, Garland will face huge challenges leading the Justice Department, including overseeing the prosecution of Trump supporters who stormed the U.S. Capitol on January 6 over Trump’s baseless claims that he won the November 3 presidential election.

He will also make decisions on controversial Trump-era policies on immigration and civil rights and will likely face calls to investigate Trump himself.

Other politically sensitive cases facing Garland include an ongoing investigating into the taxes of Biden’s son, Hunter, and the origins of the federal probe into Russian interference in the 2016 election.

Garland also will be tasked with restoring confidence in the Justice Department’s independence and improving the agency’s morale.

Trump’s attorney general, William Barr, intervened directly in criminal cases that benefited the former president’s political allies, including former national security adviser Michael Flynn, to the dismay of many career prosecutors.

Garland has earned a reputation as a moderate jurist whose nomination has been well received by some Republicans. His path to confirmation in the full Senate is very narrow, though, given that Democrats – and the independents who typically vote along with them – control 50 of its 100 seats.