Merrick Garland Returns to Senate Judiciary Committee

Attorney General nominee Judge Merrick Garland speaks during an event with President-elect Joe Biden and Vice President-elect Kamala Harris at The Queen theater in Wilmington, Del., on Jan. 7, 2021. (AP Photo/Susan Walsh)

WASHINGTON (CN) — There are no Supreme Court vacancies but Judge Merrick Garland on Monday will finally get the confirmation hearing he was denied four years when the Senate was in Republican hands.

President Joe Biden nominated the longtime D.C. Circuit judge for attorney general on January 6, mere hours before rioters stormed the Capitol building. His confirmation hearing begins on Monday morning, featuring what is expected to be a heavy focus on how Garland plans to deal with the aftermath of that pivotal day. 

The president has also nominated Lisa Monaco, a former prosecutor and national security official, as deputy attorney general, and Vanita Gupta, a progressive civil rights lawyer as associate attorney general — the second and third most important roles, respectively, in the Justice Department. 

Garland has been a member of the Washington-based federal appeals court since 1997 and concluded a seven-year term as its chief judge last year. 

Noted for his moderate rulings, the judge was thrust into the national spotlight in 2016 when then-President Barack Obama nominated him to succeed the conservative Justice Antonin Scalia, who died that February. 

If Obama had hoped Garland’s devout centrism would garner bipartisan support, however, then-Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell crushed that expectation with his vow only after Scalia’s death that he would block any nomination under the position that such seats should not be during an election year.

Four years later, when President Donald Trump appointed Amy Coney Barrett to replace Ruth Bader Ginsburg much closer to the 2020 general election, McConnell notably changed his stance to focus on divided government in an election year.

As in 2016, Garland’s moderation appears to have won him the nomination, but this time with wider bipartisan support and no obvious detractors from within the Senate. Senators McConnell, Lindsey Graham, Mike Lee and Susan Collins have all said that they would support his nomination to oversee the Justice Department or the FBI.  

In choosing an apolitical leader for the Justice Department, Biden appears to be signaling to constituents that he is taking the agency in a different direction than his predecessor, whose second appointee argued for extreme levels of executive authority

The president also aims to restore public confidence in the Justice Department after four years of legal scandals and civil rights violations. 

Biden made these intentions known when he announced Garland’s nomination in a speech at a Delaware theater the day after the assault on the Capitol. “This is a team that will restore your faith and trust in the institutions of our democracy,” he said. 

Garland’s nomination couldn’t be timelier, as his career-defining cases had to do with domestic terrorism. In 1995, a bomb was detonated at the Alfred P. Murrah Federal Building in Oklahoma City, killing 168 people. Garland, then the associate deputy attorney general, immediately rushed to the city to investigate and find the perpetrator, Timothy McVeigh. 

The judge also oversaw other high-profile domestic terrorism cases, including that of the Unabomber, Theodore Kaczynski, and another bombing, this time at the Atlanta Olympics, in 1996. 

Political winds have shifted rather dramatically since these cases. As right-wing extremist groups carry out more and more deadly terrorist attacks, the next attorney general will be tasked with a litany of domestic terrorism cases, including those from the attack on January 6. 

In testimony prepared for the hearings, Garland has pledged to reaffirm “politics that protect the independence of the department from partisan influence in law enforcement (and) that strictly regulate communications with the White House.” 

He also vowed to enforce racial justice through the position. “The Civil Rights Act of 1957 created the Department’s Civil Rights Division, with the mission ‘to uphold the civil and constitutional rights of all Americans, particularly some of the most vulnerable members of our society,” he said. “That mission remains urgent because we do not yet have equal justice.” 

Judge Garland will also have the option to bring criminal charges against Trump for inciting the riot. After a second impeachment trial led to a second acquittal, Mitch McConnell nodded the case toward the judicial branch. “He didn’t get away with anything yet,” McConnell said after the trial. “We still have a criminal justice system in this country. We still have civil litigation, and former presidents are not immune from being held accountable by either one.” 

Last week, White House press secretary Jen Psaki also deflected responsibility for the decision from the White House to the Justice Department. It will be “up to the Department of Justice to determine,” she said. 

The confirmation hearings will begin at 9:30 this morning. 

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