Biden to tap Merrick Garland as attorney general

Former Supreme Court nominee would face a swifter confirmation process in a Democrat-led Senate

Merrick Garland has been a judge on the U.S. Court of Appeals for the District of Columbia Circuit since 1997. (Al Drago/CQ Roll Call file photo)
Merrick Garland has been a judge on the U.S. Court of Appeals for the District of Columbia Circuit since 1997. (Al Drago/CQ Roll Call file photo)
Posted January 6, 2021 at 2:01pm

President-elect Joe Biden intends to nominate U.S. Circuit Judge Merrick Garland to be the next attorney general, a person familiar with the decision said Wednesday.

Garland, a well-respected and even-keeled former terrorism prosecutor, has been a judge on the U.S. Court of Appeals for the District of Columbia Circuit since 1997. If confirmed, he would lead the Justice Department at a time when members of Congress argue it has been politicized.

Garland, 68, typically would be considered a consensus candidate, one who garnered support from both Democrats and Republicans when the Senate confirmed him to the D.C. Circuit on a 76-23 vote in 1997. He could win confirmation just on the backing of Democrats in a chamber that is expected to switch to Democratic control on Jan. 20, but some Republicans are likely to support his nomination as well.

Garland’s confirmation would open up a more pitched battle over a nominee to fill the vacancy on the D.C. Circuit, which is often described as the second-most powerful court in the country because it decides cases with a nationwide sweep when it comes to regulations on the environment, health care and more.

The Justice Department oversees the nation’s immigration courts, can investigate civil rights violations at local law enforcement agencies or in voting laws, and can scrutinize business mergers in technology, health care and other industries. The department under the Biden administration could quickly reverse Trump-era policies in those areas and others, including ongoing litigation such as fights about congressional oversight, as well as the criminal prosecution for everything from drug traffickers to white-collar criminals.

Garland’s much-heralded career was overshadowed politically when President Barack Obama nominated him to the Supreme Court in 2016 and Senate Republicans cited the upcoming presidential election to block his confirmation for more than eight months. Obama had picked him in part because it would be difficult for Senate Republicans to mistreat a lawyer who was a fixture in Washington legal circles, known as a centrist, with a much-heralded career.

Biden’s decision to pick Garland for a spot known as the nation’s top law enforcement officer likely means a less contentious confirmation process. With the Senate expected to switch to Democratic control, Garland wouldn’t face the possibility of his nomination languishing without a vote.

Garland has had an uncontroversial tenure on the D.C. Circuit, where he served as chief judge from 2013 to 2020. Recently, he had recused himself from cases that involved the federal government, such as a decision Tuesday about the coronavirus stimulus bill.

Much of the country learned about Garland when Obama nominated him to the Supreme Court. Garland put himself through Harvard Law School by stocking shoes in a store and selling his comic book collection to earn money.

Garland was a clerk for Supreme Court Justice William Brennan, became a partner at a law firm, worked in the Justice Department under Presidents Jimmy Carter, George H.W. Bush and Bill Clinton and was selected for top positions at the agency. Garland oversaw the government’s response to the Oklahoma City bombing in 1995 and has often referred to his work on the case as the most important work he has done.

Obama, when picking Garland for the Supreme Court, said Garland earned a reputation for diligence, compassion and an unwavering regard for the rule of law during his 19 years on the D.C. Circuit. Garland, a Bill Clinton appointee to the federal bench, also has a record of building consensus among the divergent views of judges in that appeals court.

Niels Lesniewski contributed to this report.