With a Senate confirmation hearing scheduled to hear his testimony, Merrick Garland is close to entering the final and most influential stage of his decades-legal legal career.
A longtime judge nominated by President Joe Biden to lead the Department of Justice, Garland will be tasked with leading a battered agency and navigating numerous legal challenges across the country should he be confirmed.
“Entering the Department of Justice will be a kind of homecoming for me,” Garland said at the announcement of his nomination, which came only a day after a violent insurrection at the Capitol stalled the certification of Biden’s Electoral College victory.
“My very first job after serving as a judicial law clerk was to work as a special assistant to then-Attorney General Ben Civiletti,” Garland continued, reflecting on his career coming full circle.
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Redressing racial inequities in the justice system, combatting domestic extremism and reasserting the independence of federal law enforcement are all top priorities that Biden has laid out for the department in the coming years.
Garland, tasked with executing that vision, will play an integral role in litigation and reform efforts across the country, including some high-profile investigations that will politically entangle the White House. Here is what to know about Biden’s attorney general nominee.
Beginnings at the DOJ
Garland, a Chicago native who attended Harvard University for both undergraduate studies and law school, clerked on the Second Circuit Court of Appeals and then for famed liberal Supreme Court Justice William Brennan. Garland then moved on to serve as special assistant to Attorney General Benjamin Civiletti during former Preisident Jimmy Carter’s administration between 1979 to 1981.
He then practiced corporate litigation at the law firm Arnold & Porter, where he eventually became a partner in 1985. He didn’t stay away from public service for long, though, leaving private practice to join the U.S. Attorney’s Office for the District of Columbia in 1989, where he prosecuted public corruption and drug trafficking cases.
In 1993, Garland was then appointed Deputy Assistant Attorney General in the DOJ’s Criminal Division under the Clinton administration. The next year, Garland was made Principal Associate Deputy Attorney General, a role with expansive powers that included prosecuting domestic terror threats like the Oklahoma City and Atlanta Olympics bombings.
D.C. Circuit Judgeship
Garland’s time at the Justice Department earned him plaudits in Washington, with President Bill Clinton in 1995 nominating him for a position on the D.C. Circuit Court of Appeals, the second most influential court in the country.
A controversy over whether to fill the seat on the D.C. Circuit at all ensued, with Senate Republicans opposing Garland’s nomination on technical grounds. Clinton later renominated Garland to the court in 1997 by a 76-23 vote, which included the backing of 32 Republicans.
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Garland’s tenure on the bench was characterized by consensus and moderation. In his over 20 years on the court, where he eventually presided as chief judge, Garland earned praise from both liberals and conservatives.
The judge leaned right on criminal justice matters, for instance, while also earning a reputation for supporting underdogs, like in cases addressing racial bias in the workplace and prisoners claiming illegal detention or mistreatment.
Nomination to Supreme Court and controversy
In early 2016, after the death of Supreme Court Associate Justice Antonin Scalia, President Barrack Obama nominated Garland to replace the conservative icon on the Supreme Court.
“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,” the White House said at the time.
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He was widely seen as a centrist, compromise pick by the former president, who need support from Senate Republicans to confirm Garland to the high court. Seeing the political stakes of replacing one of the most revered conservatives to sit on the court with a left-of-center jurist, however, then-Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell declined to give Garland a hearing.
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Citing Garland’s nomination during an election year, McConnell and then-Senate Judiciary Committee Chair Chuck Grassley, R-Iowa, wrote in an op-ed that “the American people should seize the opportunity to weigh in on whom they trust to nominate the next person for a lifetime appointment to the Supreme Court.”
The move infuriated liberals and animated conservatives; the vacant Supreme Court seat heightened tensions during the already fraught 2016 election. After President Donald Trump’s victory over former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, Garland’s nomination was dropped.
Garland continued to serve as chief judge on the D.C. Circuit until Biden tapped him to be the nation’s top law enforcement official. Biden was clear that the judge’s mandate would be to renew the agency’s commitment to civil rights and combat domestic extremism.
“[The DOJ] was formed in 1870 to enforce the civil rights amendments that grew out of the Civil War. The 13th, 14th, and 15th amendments,” Biden remarked in his speech. “To stand up to the Klan, to stand up to racism, to take on domestic terrorism. This original spirit must again guide and animate its work.”
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Garland expressed urgency during the announcement, which came only a day after a violent mob ransacked the United States Capitol complex. Efforts combatting domestic terrorists like the Ku Klux Klan “echo today in the priorities that lie before us,” he said.
“From ensuring racial equity in our justice system to meeting the evolving threat of violent extremism. If confirmed, those are the principles to which I will be devoted as attorney general,” Garland continued.
The attorney general nominee faces a series of challenges, including heightened calls for police reform after a historic summer of racial justice protests in 2020. To fulfill this promise, Garland will likely bolster the department’s Office of Civil Rights, which was scaled-down under the Trump administration.
Some Capitol rioters have already been prosecuted under laws meant to indict Klan members; how Garland addresses growing extremism threats, especially from right-wing and white nationalist groups, will have major implications for civil rights and national security.
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Garland will also be challenged with reasserting the Justice Department’s independence in the face of calls to prosecute former President Donald Trump for various infractions. Garland will also oversee an ongoing investigation into the international financial dealings of Biden’s son, Hunter.
Garland will address these and other issues during his Senate confirmation hearings on Feb. 22 & 23. Quoting Vice President Kamala Harris at the announcement briefing, Garland emphasized that “any decision coming out of the Justice Department should be based on facts, should be based on the law. It should not be based on politics period.
“I would not have agreed to be considered for attorney general under any other conditions. So thank you both for giving me the opportunity to serve,” he concluded.