WASHINGTON (CN) — Divisions in American society that have seemingly reached their breaking point shaped the start of a hearing Monday for Judge Merrick Garland, whom President Joe Biden has tapped to lead his Justice Department.
“If you are confirmed as attorney general,” Committee Chairman Dick Durbin warned the nominee, “you will be faced with one of the biggest and complex investigations in department history, and that is the events of January 6.”
Politization of the Justice Department under former President Donald Trump, and Trump’s ties to the militia-type groups that tried to overrun the seat of the U.S. government last month, were both strong themes of Monday’s hearing.
On the Republican side, Texas Senator John Cornyn emphasized the importance of an apolitical Justice Department, and asked Garland to confirm that he won’t let his ideological leanings affect his prosecutions. Cornyn made no such caveat in 2018, however, when he voted to confirm former Attorney General William Barr.
Garland, whose noted centrism was hoped to win over Republicans in 2016 when then-President Barack Obama nominated him to the Supreme Court, assured the panel Monday that he plans to serve independently from the White House.
“The president nominates the attorney general to be the lawyer, not for any individual but for the people of the United States.”
In his opening statement for Republicans, the committee’s ranking member Senator Chuck Grassley defended his involvement in blocking Garland’s 2016 Supreme Court nomination.
“I admire Judge Garland’s public service,” Grassley said. “Just because I disagreed with anyone being nominated doesn’t mean I have to be disagreeable to the nominee.”
In a parting shot at the Obama-era Attorney General Eric Holder, the Iowa senator also emphasized Monday that the attorney general should not be a self-professed “wingman” to the president.
Senators Chris Van Hollen of Maryland and Tammy Duckworth of Illinois meanwhile used their introduction of the longtime D.C. Circuit judge to praise his record of moderation and modesty despite elite credentials.
Judge Garland defined his stances on quite a few key issues, including equal representation for citizens of the District of Columbia.
In addition to stating that he has “no doubt at all” humans are behind climate change, Garland vowed to strongly enforce antitrust law, describing it both as “the charger of American economic liberty” and “his first love” in law school.
Garland said he does not believe in defunding the police but does believe in investing more into alternative resources like mental health initiatives. He supports reauthorizing the Violence Against Women Act to ban individuals convicted of stalking or abusing their partners from purchasing firearms.
Multiple senators referenced Garland’s past experience at the Justice Department supervising the case against Timothy McVeigh for the 1995 Oklahoma City bombing. Durbin, Van Hollen and Duckworth did so as a point in Garland’s favor, but later in the hearings, Senator Tom Cotton of Arkansas confronted the judge for not supporting the death penalty after seeking the death penalty in McVeigh’s case.
Like Biden, Garland does not support the death penalty. The Chicago native told the committee Monday that it was during the Bush administration’s moratorium on federal executions that he had started to feel a “great pause” on the death penalty.
Garland also faced biting questions this afternoon about former FBI Director James Comey and U.S. Attorney John Durham. Cornyn tried to coax the judge into criticizing Comey for his comments about Hillary Clinton’s email scandal in 2016, while Senator Lindsey Graham asked if Garland found Durham’s review of the Russia investigation “legitimate.” Garland avoided taking any hard stances against Clinton or Durham, declining to comment on either incident.
Senate Democrats devoted most of their questions to social issues, from sexual harassment to mass incarceration and police brutality.
Georgia Senator Jon Ossoff, in his first hearing as a committee member, asked Garland to commit to tackling issues having to do with racial justice and voting rights in the name of the late John Lewis, to which Garland agreed.
New Jersey Senator Cory Booker focused his questions on marijuana legalization and incarceration. He noted that the governor of the Garden State signed bills to legalize the drug Monday and decriminalize possession in small amounts.
“It does not seem to me a useful use of limited resources that we have to be pursuing prosecutions in states that have legalized and are regulating the use of marijuana, either medically or otherwise,” Garland responded.
There was an emotional moment during Booker’s questioning: When discussing the prevalence of racial inequality in the country, Garland teared up while discussing how his family fled anti-Semitic persecution.
Senator Mazie Hirono opened her line of questioning by asking if Garland had ever committed an act of sexual harassment, to which Garland said “No.” The Hawaii democrat has taken to asking every judicial nominee this question to root out harassment in the branch.
Senators Mike Lee of Utah and John Kennedy of Louisiana used their time on more philosophical inquiries about social issues — namely, by asking Garland to define justice and race, or weigh in on culture wars right there on the bench.
Lee asked if Justice Department investigations would be affected by the “radical positions” of Vanita Gupta, a longtime civil rights attorney whom Biden has picked for deputy attorney general. Garland declined to cast a judgment on his potential colleague.
Kennedy asked whether Garland believed that letting “biological males” compete in female sports was a just policy decision, to which Garland, once again, declined to answer. “I’ve not had the chance to consider these kinds of issues in my career so far,” he said, “but I agree that it’s a difficult question.”
“When you refer to systemic racism, what is that?” Kennedy asked at another point. Garland responded that he considered it the “pattern and practice of institutional misconduct.”
On Tuesday, outside witnesses will be called to testify on Merrick Garland’s fitness for the position.
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