Merrick Garland, a federal appeals court judge and former Justice Department official whose 2016 nomination to the Supreme Court was blocked by Republicans, was confirmed Wednesday by the U.S. Senate as the nation’s top law enforcement official.
Garland, 68, a seasoned jurist and criminal investigator, was easily confirmed as the next attorney general – one of President Joe Biden’s most important cabinet appointments – on a bipartisan vote of 70 to 30. All the “no” votes were cast by Republican senators, including presidential hopefuls Ted Cruz and Josh Hawley.
Garland’s elevation to the top of the Justice Department is expected to lead to significant criminal justice policy changes under the Biden administration, from a potential moratorium on federal executions that resumed under former President Donald Trump, to closer scrutiny of police departments accused of violating civil rights.
Garland is inheriting a massive law enforcement agency rife with controversy and morale problems after four tumultuous years under Trump at a time the Justice Department is conducting a wide-ranging investigation into the January 6 attack on the U.S. Capitol by Trump supporters.
During his confirmation hearing last month, Garland said the investigation of the bloody insurrection, which has led to charges against more than 300 people, would be his top priority.
The bipartisan support for Garland is in sharp contrast to the strictly partisan votes Trump’s two attorneys general – Jeff Sessions and William Barr – received.
Prominent Republicans praised Garland’s appointment, including Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell, who blocked former President Barack Obama’s nomination of Garland to fill a vacancy on the Supreme Court in 2016, arguing that it was too close to the presidential election.
“I’m voting to confirm Judge Garland because of his long reputation as a straight-shooter and legal expert,” McConnell, a Kentucky Republican, said before the vote. “His left-of-center perspective has been within the legal mainstream.”
As attorney general, Garland will lead a department with more than 100,000 employees and a budget of more than $31 billion.
While Garland has served on the United States Court of Appeals for the District of Columbia for nearly a quarter of a century, he comes to the job of attorney general with extensive anti-terrorism experience. That likely will serve him well as he steps into a new role and trains the Justice Department’s focus on fighting domestic terrorism.
In the late 1990s, while serving as a top Justice Department official, Garland, a Harvard-educated lawyer, supervised several high-profile domestic terrorism cases.
From 1995 to 1997, he led the federal investigation of the truck bombing of a federal building in Oklahoma City, which left 168 people dead, including 19 children. It was the worst act of domestic terrorism in U.S. history.
Former army soldier and right-wing extremist Timothy McVeigh was later convicted and executed, while an accomplice, Terry Nichols, was sentenced to life in prison.
In 1996, Garland served as the “supervising attorney” for the prosecution of Theodore Kaczynski, the so-called “Unabomber” who killed three people and injured 24 others over the course of nearly two decades. Kaczynski is serving eight life sentences in prison.
Garland's transition to the judiciary came in 1997 when President Bill Clinton nominated him to the District of Columbia circuit, the second most powerful court in the country and a stepping stone for some Supreme Court justices.
But in 2016, when Obama named Garland to the Supreme Court to replace the late conservative icon Antonin Scalia, Republicans killed the nomination, allowing Trump the following year to put his own nominee on the court.
Independence from White House
Historically, many U.S. presidents have chosen close friends and allies to head the Justice Department; President John F. Kennedy picked his brother Bobby Kennedy for the job. Others, however, have turned to outsiders.
In the wake of the Watergate scandal, Republican President Gerald Ford tapped Edward Levi, a renowned president of the University of Chicago, to run the Justice Department. Along the way, Levi won accolades for restoring the department's independence and integrity.
In picking Garland as his attorney general, Biden turned to an outsider in a signal that he wants the Justice Department to retain its traditional independence and distance from the White House after a turbulent period during which Trump was accused of trying to turn the agency into a tool of his political machinery.
Garland inherits a pair of politically sensitive investigations, which will test his commitment to the Justice Department’s independence: a tax fraud probe of Biden's son Hunter, and a separate special counsel criminal examination of the origins of the Robert Mueller investigation of Russian intervention in the 2016 presidential election on behalf of Trump. During his confirmation hearing, Garland indicated that he intends to allow both to run their course.
Garland said that while he enjoys being a judge, “this is an important moment for me to step forward because of my deep respect for the Department of Justice and for its critical role of ensuring the rule of law.”
Calling the January 6 siege of the U.S. Capitol the “most heinous” attack on democracy, Garland vowed to pursue investigative leads “wherever they take us.”
“I can assure you this will be my main priority [and the subject of] my first briefing” if confirmed, said Garland.
While Garland was confirmed with a bipartisan vote, Biden’s two other top Justice Department nominations have faced Republican opposition over their alleged partisanship.
During her confirmation hearing Tuesday, Vanita Gupta, tapped for the No. 3 position at the Justice Department, was grilled over her past partisan comments on social media aimed at Republican politicians and Trump’s judicial nominees.
Gupta, a prominent civil rights lawyer who previously served as an assistant attorney general in the Obama administration, apologized for her “harsh rhetoric.”
“I can pledge to you today that if I am confirmed, you won’t be hearing that kind of rhetoric from me,” Gupta, president and CEO of the Leadership Conference on Civil and Human Rights, told members of the Senate Judiciary Committee.
Republicans sought reassurance from Gupta and other Justice Department nominees that the agency would investigate left-wing violence with the same vigor as the ongoing investigation into the right-wing perpetrators of the Capitol attack.
“We were fortunate to have Attorney General Barr, who took seriously the federal government’s role to protect federal property and enforce federal law. Judge Garland must be prepared to do the same,” McConnell said.