J. Scott Applewhite/AP
Judge Merrick Garland arrives on Capitol Hill in Washington for his confirmation hearing as attorney general, Feb. 22, 2021. Mr. Garland, an appeals court judge, is widely expected to sail through the confirmation process with bipartisan support.

Garland pledges 'equal justice' and independence from politics

Merrick Garland’s confirmation process for U.S. attorney general is underway. Mr. Garland has said he will focus on civil rights, confront extremism and domestic terrorism, and restore the Justice Department’s political independence.

Merrick Garland, President Joe Biden’s nominee for attorney general, vowed on Monday to prioritize civil rights, combat extremist attacks, and ensure the United States Justice Department remains politically independent.

Mr. Garland, a federal appeals court judge who was snubbed by Republicans for a seat on the Supreme Court in 2016, appeared Monday before the Senate Judiciary Committee and is widely expected to sail through his confirmation process with bipartisan support.

“The attorney general represents the public interest, particularly and specifically as defined by the Constitution and the statutes of the United States,” Mr. Garland said. “I do not plan to be interfered with by anyone.”

Mr. Garland will inherit a Justice Department that endured a tumultuous time under Mr. Trump – rife with political drama and controversial decisions – and abundant criticism from Democrats over what they saw as the politicizing of the nation’s top law enforcement agencies.

Early in the hearing, Mr. Garland faced questioning about his plans to handle specific investigations and politically sensitive cases, like the federal tax investigation involving Mr. Biden’s son Hunter Biden, and the special counsel’s inquiry started by William Barr, while he was attorney general, into the origins of the Trump-Russia investigation, which also remains open.

Mr. Garland said he had not spoken with Mr. Biden about the investigation into his son. He said he had agreed to the nomination as attorney general because the president had vowed that “decisions about investigations and prosecutions will be left to the Justice Department.”

Mr. Garland’s nomination has gained public support on both sides of the political aisle, from more than 150 former Justice Department officials – including former attorneys general Loretta Lynch, Michael Mukasey, and Alberto Gonzales, along with 61 former federal judges. Others, including two sons of former Attorney General Edward Levi, have also written letters of support to Congress.

“There have been few moments in history where the role of attorney general – and the occupant of that post – have mattered more,” the committee’s chairman, Sen. Dick Durbin, D-Ill., said in remarks prepared for the hearing.

Mr. Garland’s failed nomination to the Supreme Court wasn’t far from lawmakers minds’, with the bitter partisan feelings over the 2016 confirmation battle apparent in the hearing room. Sen. Chuck Grassley, who was chairman of the panel at the time and carried out GOP leader Mitch McConnell’s directive to block Mr. Garland from the court, defended his role, saying he took a position and “stuck to it.” He then criticized Democrats over their handling of Justice Brett Kavanaugh’s confirmation.

Still, he indicated he would be supportive of Mr. Garland.

“I admire Judge Garland’s public service,” Mr. Grassley said. “Just because I disagreed with anyone being nominated didn’t mean that I had to be disagreeable to that nominee.”

In his own prepared remarks, Mr. Garland focuses on prioritizing policing and civil rights to combat racial discrimination – he says America doesn’t “yet have equal justice” – as well as confronting the rise in extremist violence and domestic terror threats, and restoring the department’s political independence after years of controversial decisions and turmoil.

“Communities of color and other minorities still face discrimination in housing, education, employment, and the criminal justice system; and bear the brunt of the harm caused by pandemic, pollution, and climate change,” Mr. Garland’s remarks read.

Mr. Garland said his first briefing as attorney general would be focused on the insurrection at the U.S. Capitol on Jan. 6 and promised to provide prosecutors with whatever resources they need to bring charges in the cases.

“I will supervise the prosecution of white supremacists and others who stormed the Capitol on January 6 – a heinous attack that sought to disrupt a cornerstone of our democracy: the peaceful transfer of power to a newly elected government,” his statement read.

Mr. Biden’s choice of Mr. Garland reflects the president’s goal of restoring the department’s reputation as an independent body. During his four years as president, Donald Trump insisted that the attorney general must be loyal to him personally, a position that battered the department’s reputation. Mr. Garland’s high-court nomination by President Barack Obama in 2016 expired because the Republican-controlled Senate refused to hold a hearing.

“I believe that he is the right person for this moment in time,” said Sen. Amy Klobuchar, D-Minn. “The fact that he’s a judge, the fact that he has worked at the Justice Department, that he worked on domestic terrorism cases and headed them up. That he understands how important it is to bring the law back into the Justice Department.”

The department’s priorities and messaging are expected to shift drastically in the Biden administration, with a focus more on civil rights issues, criminal justice overhauls, and policing policies in the wake of nationwide protests over the death of Black Americans at the hands of law enforcement.

Mr. Garland is a white man, but two other members of the Justice Department leadership, Vanita Gupta and Kristen Clarke, are women with significant experience in civil rights. Their selections appeared designed to blunt any concerns about Mr. Biden’s choice for attorney general and served as a signal that progressive causes would be prioritized in the new administration.

Mr. Garland is an experienced judge who held senior positions at the Justice Department decades ago, including as a supervisor in the prosecution of the 1995 Oklahoma City bombing. But he is set to return to a department that is radically different from the one he left. His experience prosecuting domestic terrorism cases could prove exceptionally handy.

This story was reported by The Associated Press. AP writer Mary Clare Jalonick contributed to this report.

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