Garland confirmation hearing previews policy battles ahead

Confirmation is all but assured

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Posted February 22, 2021 at 2:56pm

Members of the Senate Judiciary Committee from both parties used a confirmation hearing for attorney general nominee Merrick Garland to foreshadow what could be more heated partisan policy fights on gun control, police accountability for use of force, immigration and voting rights.

The committee gave a cordial welcome Monday to the longtime federal appeals court judge in Washington, known for his even-keeled demeanor, reputation as a centrist, and history as a former terrorism prosecutor.

His confirmation was all but assured by senators.

“You’re going to be confirmed. I’ll bet my farm in Vermont on that,” Vermont Democrat Patrick J. Leahy said.

“Never ask anyone to bet that, senator,” replied Garland, who five years ago had been denied a confirmation hearing before the same committee by Republicans for a spot on the Supreme Court.

Durbin told reporters that Democrats want to set a committee vote on Garland’s nomination March 1, with a final confirmation vote later next week.

Republicans and Democrats alike seemed assured that Garland has the demeanor to resist political influence over prosecutions and investigations, so many of the questions focused on what he would do with new policy positions from President Joe Biden.

“The president has promised those decisions will only be made by the attorney general,” Garland said. “I do not plan to be interfered with by anyone.”

When Utah Republican Sen. Mike Lee pressed Garland on whether he would back any policies that would restrict Second Amendment gun rights, Garland’s answer indicated he would work with Biden to advance the president’s policy priorities as long as they are consistent with the law.

Garland noted that the Supreme Court hasn’t done much in the past decade to clarify what limits the federal government could put on gun ownership.

“Where there is room under the law for the president’s policies to be pursued, then I think the president is entitled to pursue them,” Garland said.

Leahy brought up a broad package of voting rights legislation that Democrats support but stalled in the Republican-controlled Senate during the last Congress.

Democrats say the need for such a bill is even more urgent now that states might adopt new voting laws because former President Donald Trump continues to claim falsely that the results of the November 2020 presidential election were not valid.

Garland said he would support legislation that would encourage more voting, and would work with Congress to try to update the portion of the Voting Rights Act that the Supreme Court struck down in 2013.

Missouri Republican Sen. Josh Hawley pressed Garland on what he would do about violent crime, and asked whether he supported defunding the police, a phrase that became a political lightning rod when demonstrators made the demand during unrest this past summer over police use of force.

“President Biden has said he does not support defunding the police and neither do I,” Garland said.

On police accountability, Garland told Minnesota Democratic Sen. Amy Klobuchar that he would support legislation to overhaul police practices, which Democrats plan to advance in a major bill.

He told Hawaii Democratic Sen. Mazie K. Hirono that Congress has given the Justice Department the authority and responsibility to investigate discriminatory actions of state and local police departments — something largely abandoned during the Trump administration.

And Garland, under a question from Delaware Democratic Sen. Chris Coons, said he would support more funding for police body cameras, an important accountability tool.

'Shameful' policies

Illinois Democrat Richard J. Durbin, the new committee chairman, started the hearing with a nod to working on immigration with the last chairman, South Carolina Republican Sen. Lindsey Graham.

Garland later told Durbin that the Trump administration’s zero tolerance policy, which resulted in separated families, was “shameful” — an indication of how much Biden’s policies will differ.

“I can’t imagine anything worse than tearing parents from their children,” Garland said.

Graham then encouraged Garland to visit the U.S.-Mexico border to see how drug cartels manipulate the nation’s asylum laws. The Justice Department runs much of the nation’s immigration enforcement.

Garland demurred when it came to a question about Section 230 liability protection for social media websites, an issue Republicans have pressed with claims that those sites suppress conservative voices, saying he would have to learn more.

“You on the committee know more about this than I do,” Garland said.

Much of the hearing highlighted just how many tricky political questions Garland might face in the coming years. Rhode Island Sen. Sheldon Whitehouse, a Democrat, asked whether Garland planned to pursue investigations into those who funded or directed the Jan. 6 insurrection — a hint that some investigations might implicate Trump administration officials or conservative officials.

“We will pursue these leads wherever they take us,” Garland said. “That’s the job of a prosecution.”

And Whitehouse conveyed Democrats will investigate Justice Department actions under the last administration. He asked Garland to look into why the DOJ was not answering questions, and said he had 28 letters on different subjects that went unanswered during a “four-year stonewall” by the Trump administration.

“I would definitely direct that the previous questions be answered,” Garland said, requesting that those questions be prioritized.

“We will do that,” Whitehouse said.