Perhaps the most patient man in Washington, Merrick Garland is not likely to be late for his appointment with senators on Monday. He has, after all, been waiting five years for this moment.
Garland would now be a supreme court justice if Barack Obama had his way in 2016. But Senate Republicans refused to consider him then and Garland is now Joe Biden’s pick for attorney general.
Any sense of poetic justice might soon dissipate at his confirmation hearing before the Senate judiciary committee. Garland, a centrist, is likely to face sharp questions from left and right.
Progressives are expected to grill the 68-year-old about his commitment to racial justice, voting rights and domestic terror. Republicans might seek to wrong-foot him on how law enforcement should handle mass protests and on potential prosecutions, from Biden’s son Hunter to former president Donald Trump.
“Hopefully it will make up somewhat for the frustration he must have felt when his nomination for the supreme court was blocked,” said Ed Fallone, an associate law professor at Marquette University in Milwaukee, Wisconsin. “On the other hand, President Obama sent him into a thankless task when he nominated him to the court and it may be that Joe Biden is also setting him up for a thankless task, so one has to wonder what Merrick Garland did to deserve this.”
Garland will inherit a justice department battered by Trump, who undermined its independence, weakened its civil rights enforcement and repeatedly accused employees of working for the “deep state”. The political moderate will also walk into the crossfire of hyper-partisan Washington.
Fallone added: “He’s going to inherit a demoralised justice department in terms of staff. He’s going to have to try to get the career people back on track. It’s also a staff that’s been hit very hard by departures so he’s going to have to ramp up the hiring and bring on good people.
“He’s the best attorney general Republicans could hope for in terms of potential nominees because of his reputation for integrity and fairness but he’ll never satisfy them. And he’s never going to satisfy the progressive wing of the Democratic party in particular on issues relating to police misconduct and voting rights. They’re going to want a much more muscular attorney general than I think is in Merrick Garland’s DNA.”
The justice department is still grappling with the aftermath of the police killing of George Floyd, which led to widespread demonstrations against racial injustice and police treatment of African Americans. Senate hearings are often an exercise in avoiding errors but given the stated priorities of the Biden administration, this is one area where Garland might feel comfortable committing.
When he accepted the president’s nomination, he said “ensuring racial equity” and “meeting the evolving threat of violent extremism” would be top priorities. He can point to a record that includes bringing Timothy McVeigh and his co-conspirator Terry Nichols to justice for the 1995 bombing of a federal office building in Oklahoma City that killed 168 people.
On civil rights, however, questions remain. According to the Brennan Center for Justice, 165 pending bills in 33 states would make it harder to vote. Both Democrats and Republicans might seek clarity on how far Garland is willing to intervene.
LaTosha Brown, co-founder of Black Voters Matter, said: “My concern is that he does not have a strong civil rights history. He has been in many ways a moderate, uneventful judge. Even when Obama nominated him, one of the critiques was that he was making a compromise with what he thought was a ‘clean’ candidate to get through.
“And what I need in the midst of Black people and our voting rights being…