Garland Pledges to be ‘Lawyer for the People’

February 23, 2021 by Tom Ramstack
Judge Merrick Garland, nominee to be Attorney General, is sworn in at his confirmation hearing before the Senate Judiciary Committee, Monday, Feb. 22, 2021 on Capitol Hill in Washington. (Al Drago/Pool via AP)

WASHINGTON — Merrick Garland brought his middle-of-the-road opinions of justice to a Senate hearing Monday to help lawmakers decide whether to confirm him as the next U.S. attorney general.

Garland is a federal judge who also is President Joe Biden’s nominee to lead the U.S. Department of Justice.

The bipartisan support he has won for his centrist rulings and even temperament is expected to help him gain confirmation by the Senate next month.

From the first, many of the senators left no doubt they wanted Garland to be a reformer who avoids what they described as the partisan politics of the Trump administration’s Justice Department.

“The misdeeds of the Trump administration brought this department to its knees,” said Sen. Dick Durbin, D-Ill., who chairs the Senate Judiciary Committee.

He described the Justice Department of the past four years as being used by the president to protect his friends and family from prosecution and target his political enemies.

He mentioned as an example former President Donald Trump’s failed effort to use the Justice Department to overturn the presidential election won by Biden, possibly including prosecutions of officials who would try to block the effort.

“The public’s trust in the Department of Justice has been shaken,” Durbin said.

Garland comes to the job first as a prosecutor for the Justice Department and later as a judge for the past 24 years. He is currently a judge for the U.S. Court of Appeals for the District of Columbia Circuit.

His reputation, which propelled him into a judgeship, came from his high-profile prosecutions of domestic terrorism cases.

One of them was the 1995 Oklahoma City bombing of a federal building that killed 168 people. It was the worst case of domestic terrorism in U.S. history.

Garland chose and supervised the team of prosecutors, eventually leading to the execution by lethal injection of Timothy McVeigh at a federal prison in Terre Haute, Ind., in 2001. He later called the case one of the most important things he has done in his career.

He also prosecuted Unabomber Theodore J. Kaczynski and Eric Rudolph, who was convicted of setting a pipe bomb at the 1996 Summer Olympics in Atlanta.

As a judge, Garland has ruled in favor of government transparency in First Amendment rights cases. He also helped to strike down a District of Columbia ban on handguns and upheld a prohibition on campaign contributions from federal contractors.

During the hearing Monday, he called domestic terrorism one of the greatest threats faced by the United States now.

“It’s quite clear this kind of hateful activity has to stop,” Garland said.

He made the statement less than two months after insurrectionists invaded the U.S. Capitol building in a violent show of support for Trump. Several senators asked Garland what he believes should be done to the white extremists who led the riot.

“Any attack on a federal building violates the statutes and will be prosecuted,” Garland said.

He said he would make investigating the insurrection and prosecuting the rioters a top priority. He called the incident a “heinous attack” on democracy.

The headline-generating nature of the attorney general’s job prompted Sen. Ted Cruz, R-Texas, to ask Garland whether he could “stand up to inevitable political pressure.”

He responded, “I do not regard myself as anything other than the lawyer for the people of the United States. I am not the president’s lawyer.”

The relatively painless reception the Senate Judiciary Committee gave Garland was far different from how the Senate greeted then-President Barack Obama’s nomination of him to the Supreme Court. 

Senate Republicans refused to give Garland a hearing, meaning the nomination expired after almost 10 months. They said they wanted someone more conservative on the Supreme Court, which they received with the appointment of Neil Gorsuch.

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