Senate Quicksand Isn’t Sole Force Keeping Top DOJ Posts Open

Staffing of Department of Justice is moving at a glacial pace, with permanent leadership still lacking across the agency several months in.

President Joe Biden and first lady Jill Biden walk Friday on the South Lawn of the White House to board Marine One en route to Camp David, Md. (AP Photo/Andrew Harnik)

WASHINGTON (CN) — Weeks after former federal judge Merrick Garland was confirmed as attorney general, many top jobs in the Department of Justice are still open. Many of them haven’t even received nominations yet. 

While the Senate confirmation process bears much responsibility for this — Republicans slowed Garland’s nomination already and are doing the same to others — Politico reported Monday that a rift between Garland and President Joe Biden over who they want to nominate is complicating matters. The attorney general wants more say over the nominees, while the White House still has people in mind for the department, which didn’t immediately respond to requests for comment.

Lisa Monaco and Vanita Gupta, whom Biden tapped as deputy and associate attorney general, respectively, so far are the only other nominees at Justice to make it to a vote. But despite having held hearings on both women in early March, the Senate Judiciary Committee has only moved Monaco forward for a vote.

Senate Republicans voted against Gupta’s nomination over concerns about her ideological track record, leaving the vote to move her forward stuck at a tie. 

Kristen Clarke, Biden’s nominee to oversee the Civil Rights Division, meanwhile hasn’t received a confirmation hearing. With the Senate Judiciary Committee not yet adding a hearing for her to the calendar, Senate Republicans have again cited concerns over the nominee’s ideological background.

To critics, though, the Republican skepticism against Clarke is another trumped-up culture war stemming from a Jonathan Swift-style letter from her Harvard days. 

Bruce Adelson, a former senior trial attorney for the department, considers the delay problematic. “With the alarming rise in hate crimes and bias incidents directed at Asian-Americans, incidents of violent extremism, and significant COVID-related discrimination, our nation needs the president’s choice to lead the DOJ’s Civil Rights Division confirmed as expeditiously as possible,” he said in an email.

Another of Biden’s nominees waiting for a hearing is Energy Department lawyer Todd Kim, who has been tapped to oversee the Environment and Natural Resources Division.

Agency-wide, however, most divisions haven’t received nominees for their top jobs at all: The Criminal Division, Executive Office for Immigration Review, Drug Enforcement Administration, and Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives are still being overseen by acting directors. 

The Biden administration’s slow-rolled nomination process sits somewhere between those of the last two. President Obama announced his four top nominees days after his 2009 inauguration, and within a few months he’d filled out the leadership roster for the Antitrust Division. 

President Trump, on the other hand, only confirmed appointments for attorney general and deputy attorney general, and nominated four others by mid-May. 

But Obama had his troubles confirming nominees as well: He’d nominated 10 judges and 13 U.S. attorneys by July of his first year in office, but none ultimately moved beyond that point. 

Today’s Justice Department could remain in limbo through the rest of the year. At his first press conference since the inauguration, President Biden stressed that his first priorities were Covid-19 and “the economic dislocation of millions and millions of Americans.” 

The twin problems plaguing his presidency, on top of developing issues like the border crisis and back-to-back mass shootings, could further distract Biden from filling up slots in the agency the way he could in calmer times. 

“I know that Senate floor time is precious now, with many important priorities competing for Senate action,” Adelson said. “Now that agency heads have been confirmed, it is time to prioritize confirming the next level of appointees.”

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