Biden confirms Merrick Garland as pick for attorney general

Biden confirms Merrick Garland as pick for attorney general
President-elect Joe Biden confirmed Merrick Garland as his pick for US attorney general.
4 min read
Federal Judge Merrick Garland speaks in Wilmington, Delaware [Getty]

President-elect Joe Biden on Thursday introduced Merrick Garland - a centrist judge who Republicans denied a seat on the Supreme Court five years ago - as his pick for US attorney general.

The 68-year-old Garland, a judge on the Washington federal appeals court, has a record as a moderate liberal but is not aligned with either political party. 

If confirmed by the US Senate, Garland will helm a Justice Department that must decide whether to investigate President Donald Trump and his associates for various actions over the past four years.

Senate Republicans blocked Garland's nomination to the high court by then-president Barack Obama for eight months in 2016, which allowed Trump to fill the vacant seat with a conservative-leaning justice the following year.

"Entering the Department of Justice will be a kind of homecoming for me," Garland said as Biden introduced him in a televised appearance, the judge's voice cracking with emotion, adding he would approach his new job with "humility".

Speaking from his transitional headquarters in Delaware, Biden assailed Trump's four years in office, when critics accused the US leader of deploying the Justice Department to settle personal scores.

Biden, who will be inaugurated January 20, said the Justice Department and the attorney general should be independent of all political pressure.

"Justice is blind," Biden said. "Justice serves the people. It doesn't protect the powerful."

If confirmed by the Senate, which seems certain now that the Democrats have control of the chamber, the mild-mannered Jewish judge from Chicago must consider whether to investigate Trump.

Such a move would be deeply controversial in a bitter and divided country already at odds with itself, and not all Democrats support such an effort.

Trump could face investigation for possible obstruction of justice in the Russia election-meddling probe carried out by special counsel Robert Mueller.

Trump could not be charged while he was president as per a longstanding Justice Department policy.

Garland must also weigh whether to probe Trump for possible tax fraud and other alleged misdeeds in his business dealings, and he will need to resurrect sagging morale at a department criticized as becoming a tool of Trump under previous attorney general Bill Barr.

"The essence of the rule of law is that like cases are treated alike," Garland said.

"Not one rule for Republicans, another for Democrats. Not one for friends, one for foes."

Former top prosecutor

Garland has had a long career as a private sector lawyer and a federal prosecutor. 

In 1993, he was named deputy assistant attorney general in the Department of Justice, handling important national security cases including the Oklahoma City and Atlanta Olympics bombings.

As prosecutor, he handled several cases of national significance, including leading the investigation and prosecution that ultimately saw Oklahoma City bomber Timothy McVeigh sentenced to life over the attacks that killed 168 people in 1995.

At the Justice Department, where he eventually served as principal associate deputy attorney general, he also oversaw the agency's response to "Unabomber" Ted Kaczynski, who planted and mailed homemade bombs, and the anti-government Montana Freemen.

In 1997, president Bill Clinton named him to the Washington appeals court, and he received broad support from Democratic and Republican senators in his confirmation.

He became chief judge of that court in 2013 and, in March 2016, was picked by Obama to fill a seat on the Supreme Court after Antonin Scalia died.

But Republicans led by Senate Majority leader Mitch McConnell would not even hold hearings on Garland's nomination, much less a vote, arguing the Supreme Court seat should instead be filled after a new president took office in January 2017.

Democrats therefore cried hypocrisy last year when progressive judge Ruth Bader Ginsburg died in September, and Trump and the Republicans rushed to fill her seat with a conservative before the November 3 presidential election.

The Senate approved the nomination of judge Amy Coney Barrett, and with that pick Trump engineered a 6-3 conservative edge on the nine-member bench.

Garland thanked his family and his grandparents, who immigrated from the Pale of Settlement, a territory in the west of czarist Russia where Jews were allowed to reside permanently.

Agencies contributed to this report.

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