Confirmation hearing begins for attorney general nominee Merrick Garland

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WASHINGTON (AP) — Merrick Garland, President Joe Biden’s nominee for attorney general, will appear for his confirmation hearing vowing to prioritize civil rights, combat extremist attacks and ensure the Justice Department remains politically independent.

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

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., says in remarks prepared for the hearing.

In his own prepared remarks, 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,” Garland says.

Garland is also planning to highlight the department’s work prosecuting hundreds of pro-Trump rioters who stormed the U.S. Capitol as Congress was voting to certify Biden’s electoral win on Jan. 6.

“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,” he says.

Biden’s choice of 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. Garland’s high-court nomination by President Barack Obama in 2016 died 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.”

Garland will inherit a Justice Department that endured a tumultuous time under 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.

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

But Garland will also likely face questioning about his plans to handle specific investigations and politically sensitive cases, like the federal tax investigation involving Biden’s son Hunter Biden, along with a Justice Department investigation examining whether New York Gov. Andrew Cuomo’s administration intentionally manipulated data about nursing home coronavirus deaths.

A special counsel’s inquiry started by William Barr, while he was attorney general, into the origins of the Trump-Russia investigation also remains open. It will be up to Garland to decide what to make public from that report.

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 Biden’s choice for attorney general and served as a signal that progressive causes would be prioritized in the new administration.

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.

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