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Senate confirms Merrick Garland to be U.S. attorney general

Merrick Garland answers a question.
Merrick Garland answers questions from the Senate Judiciary Committee for his confirmation hearing as attorney general on Feb. 22.
(J. Scott Applewhite / Associated Press)

The Senate confirmed Merrick Garland on Wednesday to be the next U.S. attorney general with a strong bipartisan vote, placing the widely respected, veteran judge in the post as President Biden has vowed to restore the Justice Department’s reputation for independence.

Democrats have praised Garland, a federal appeals court judge who was snubbed by Republicans for a seat on the Supreme Court in 2016, as a highly qualified and honorable jurist who is uniquely qualified to lead the department after a tumultuous four years under former President Trump. Many Republicans praised him as well, saying he has the right record and temperament for the moment. He was confirmed 70 to 30.

The Senate on Wednesday also confirmed Ohio Rep. Marcia Fudge to head the Department of Housing and Urban Development and North Carolina regulator Michael Regan to lead the Environmental Protection Agency, picking up the pace for confirmations in Biden’s Cabinet.

Fudge, a veteran lawmaker, will lead the housing agency agency just as Congress has passed new benefits for renters and homeowners who have suffered economic losses amid the COVID-19 pandemic.

Regan, who has served as North Carolina’s top environmental regulator since 2017, will help lead Biden’s efforts to address climate change and advocate for environmental justice, two of the administration’s top priorities. He is the first Black man to run the EPA.

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Garland will inherit a Justice Department embattled by a turbulent era under Trump, who insisted that the attorney general and the department must be loyal to him personally, battering the department’s reputation. In the last month of Trump’s presidency, Atty. Gen. William Barr resigned after refuting Trump’s false claims that widespread electoral fraud had led to his defeat.

Trump’s pressure on officials, particularly on Barr and former Atty. Gen. Jeff Sessions over the department’s probe into his campaign’s ties to Russia, prompted abundant criticism from Democrats over what they saw as the politicizing of the nation’s top law enforcement agencies.

“After Donald Trump spent four years — four long years — subverting the powers of the Justice Department for his own political benefit, treating the attorney general like his own personal defense lawyer, America can breathe a sigh of relief that we’re going to have someone like Merrick Garland leading the Justice Department,” said Majority Leader Charles E. Schumer (D-N.Y.) ahead of the vote. “Someone with integrity, independence, respect for the rule of law and credibility on both sides of the aisle.”

Senate Republican Leader Mitch McConnell of Kentucky — who prevented Garland from becoming a Supreme Court Justice in 2016 when he blocked his nomination — said he was voting to confirm Garland because of “his long reputation as a straight shooter and a legal expert” and that his “left-of-center perspective” was still 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.

Garland’s nomination was widely seen as a redemption after McConnell had blocked his Supreme Court nomination, taking a huge political gamble after the death of conservative Justice Antonin Scalia by saying that the next president should get the pick, not outgoing President Obama. Trump was then down in the polls, but McConnell’s bet paid off when the Republican won the presidency. Garland’s nomination floundered for nine months, and he never got a hearing.

“We can never erase the sad memory of what happened to Judge Merrick Garland five years ago in the United States Senate, but we can give this remarkable man an opportunity to write a new chapter of public service in his life,” said Senate Judiciary Chairman Richard J. Durbin (D-Ill.) just before the vote.

As he finally sat before the Judiciary panel in February, Garland sought to assure lawmakers that the Justice Department would remain politically independent on his watch. He said his first priority would be to combat extremist violence with an initial focus on the Jan. 6 insurrection at the U.S. Capitol, promising lawmakers that he would provide prosecutors with whatever resources they need to bring charges over the attack.

Garland will also inherit immediate political challenges, including an ongoing criminal tax investigation into Biden’s son, Hunter, and a federal probe into the overseas and business dealings of the former New York City mayor and Trump ally Rudolph W. Giuliani, which stalled last year over a dispute about investigative tactics as Trump unsuccessfully sought reelection.

His confirmation also comes amid calls from many Democrats to pursue inquiries into Trump.


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