Senate confirms Garland as attorney general

The Senate on Wednesday confirmed Merrick Garland to be President Biden’s attorney general, a u-turn from a 2016 stalemate that kept him stuck in Senate limbo.

Senators voted 70-30 on Garland’s nomination to lead the Justice Department, easily topping the 50 votes needed.

The vote comes just days before the five-year anniversary from when then-President Obama nominated Garland to fill the Supreme Court seat left vacant by the death of Justice Antonin Scalia. Republicans, who then controlled the Senate, refused to give Garland a hearing or a vote.

This time around Garland, who has served on the D.C. Circuit Court of Appeals since 1997, won support from most of the caucus, including the men at the center of the 2016 standoff: GOP Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) and Sen. Chuck Grassley (R-Iowa). 

"I'm voting to confirm Judge Garland because of his long reputation as a straight shooter and a legal expert. His left-of-center perspective has been within the legal mainstream. Let's hope our incoming attorney general applies that no-nonsense approach to the serious challenges facing the Department of Justice and our nation," McConnell said ahead of Wednesday’s vote. 

Garland's path to confirmation wasn’t without headaches after Sen. Tom Cotton (R-Ark.) announced that he had placed a hold on the nomination, forcing Democrats to eat up days of floor time. 

But with Democrats holding 50 seats and GOP support from many of Cotton’s colleagues, Garland was widely expected to be confirmed. 

Grassley announced this week that he would support Garland but said he had “concerns,” adding that it was the long-time judge’s “credibility that’s on the line here.” 

Garland is taking over a Justice Department battered by being at the center of recent political scandals, with senators on both sides concerned it has become politicized. 

Garland, during an hours-long confirmation hearing, pledged to be independent of Biden.

“I am the United States's lawyer. I will do everything in my power … to fend off any effort by anyone to make prosecutions or investigations partisan or political in any way,” Garland said during the hearing. 

Garland will be under the microscope to see how he works to reestablish the department’s independence from the White House.

“There’s been deep politicization of the Justice Department. It was quite widespread over the last four years,” Wendy Weiser, director of the Democracy Program at the Brennan Center for Justice, said.

“There is still work to do, not just to restore the functioning of the institution, but shoring up the guard rails to make sure it won't be politicized again.”

Garland will have to balance rebuilding the Justice Department with juggling a wide-ranging domestic terrorism probe and controversial policy fights on issues like police reform and immigration.

Those will spark immediate tests that could have far-reaching political repercussions, testing his pledge for independence. 

Garland will have to decide whether to take the unprecedented step of investigating and potentially prosecuting a former president following accusations that Trump stoked the Jan. 6 riot that overran the Capitol and left five people dead.

The department is also carrying out a tax investigation into President Biden’s son Hunter Biden that is being closely watched by Republicans, who also pressed Garland to let special counsel John Durham continue his probe into the origins of the 2016 probe involving Russian election interference and the Trump campaign. 

“I would not have taken this job if I thought that politics would have any influence over prosecutions and investigations,” he told senators during his confirmation hearing. 

Garland also committed to lawmakers that he would ensure the department, which oversees the FBI, would take a greater role in monitoring and combating domestic terrorism. It’s familiar ground for Garland, who, as a U.S. attorney, investigated and led prosecutions tied to the Oklahoma City bombing in 1995. 

“I don't think that this is necessarily a one off,” Garland said, noting DOJ’s work prosecuting the Ku Klux Klan and his experience litigating domestic terrorism. 

“I intend to make sure that we look more broadly to look at where this is coming from, what other groups there might be that could raise the same problem in the future,” he added.

Garland will also take over a department that will need to ramp up to meet Biden’s goals on voting rights and criminal justice reform. 

The Trump Department of Justice became the first to not bring a single enforcement action under the 1965 Voting Rights Act. It also scrapped Obama-era policies that limited the use of mandatory-minimum sentences and reliance on private prisons‚ policies the Biden administration has already moved to reinstate.

Garland said both criminal justice reform and voting rights would be a top priority of his.

“I regard my responsibilities with respect to the Civil Rights Division as at the top of my agenda priorities lists. So, you have my commitment to do everything I can in this area,” Garland said during his confirmation hearing.

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