Attorney General candidate Merrick Garland speaks during an event with President-Elect Joe Biden on January 7, 2021 in Wilmington, Delaware. Susan Walsh / AP hide the caption
Susan Walsh / AP
Susan Walsh / AP
Most people know Judge Merrick Garland for what didn’t happen to him. Five years ago, the Senate never responded to his appointment to the Supreme Court.
This week that will change as a new chapter begins in Garland’s lifelong commitment to public service. 68-year-old Garland will appear before the Senate Judiciary Committee as President Biden’s election as attorney general. This time he faces few obstacles on the way to confirmation. But the institution he is likely to join is largely in shock.
The Justice Department is still teetering on political scandals from the Trump years – trying to neutralize the threat posed by local, violent extremists who were involved in the attack on the U.S. Capitol. Garland has dealt with such problems before in his 44-year legal career. This is one of the many reasons the White House selected him as the country’s top law enforcement officer.
“A respected attorney general judge will help lift the department out of the quagmire of partisan politics that many believe arose under President Trump and the attorney general [William] Barr, “said Paul Butler, a law professor at Georgetown University.
Early years and a Hollywood inspiration
After serving at William Brennan’s Supreme Court of Justice, Garland accepted a position as an advisor to President Jimmy Carter’s Justice Department. In those years after Watergate, department heads struggled to separate partisan influence from law enforcement and to set new boundaries for the FBI. Some of the greatest investigations of the time, in which Garland played a minor role, later found their way onto movie screens.
“American Hustle about the Abscam case, Argo about the exfiltration of hostages in Iran and most importantly the Miracle on Ice about the Olympic Games at Lake Placid, where I worked on security for the Olympic Games,” Garland recalled before one Audience at his alma mater, Harvard Law School, in 2016.
Garland told former Harvard Law Dean Martha Minow that he hadn’t started his take on the law. Rather, he wanted to help people, one on one, so he planned to become a doctor. But his collision with chemistry and math brought him to the legal profession, where he’s been looking for such a direct connection ever since.
In 2016, Judge Merrick Garland was President Barack Obama’s candidate for the Supreme Court. Five years later, he is President Biden’s choice to head the Justice Department. Above, Garland stands in the rose garden with Obama and Biden after he was introduced as Obama’s candidate. Pablo Martinez Monsivais / AP Hide caption
Pablo Martinez Monsivais / AP
Pablo Martinez Monsivais / AP
In the mid-1980s, Garland became a rising star at the Arnold & Porter law firm in Washington, DC. Among his peers, he made time for a young college graduate, Randy Thompson, who also worked at the firm’s copy center. Thompson said Garland checked one of his papers, photocopied it, and rearranged the paragraphs.
“That was essentially the beginning when he became a writing coach for me and it was just an amazing experience and he became my coach, eventually my mentor, and a friend 30 years later,” said Thompson.
Eventually Garland wrote him a law school reference, graduated, and has been in touch ever since. Thompson said Garland is still a little old school, still humble and still looking for help.
“The only thing that has really changed about him, and I think so, is the color of our hair,” he said with a laugh.
A return to government
Garland spent several years with the company before a judge told him he was “wasting his life” and should rejoin government. He took that advice, and in the early 1990s Garland persecuted a violent gang who terrorized people on a public housing project and helped promote a case against then-Mayor of DC Marion Barry on drug charges.
Back at Justice Department headquarters, Garland was the man looking for the toughest problems. On April 19, 1995, a truck bomb ripped apart the federal building in Oklahoma City, killing 168 people. Former Assistant Attorney General Jamie Gorelick recalls that day with Garland by her side.
“He basically said as he watched children being pulled out of the rubble that he had to go,” Gorelick said. “He really wanted to leave. We both had young children at the time and what we saw on those screens was so impressive.”
Garland would soon travel to the site of the deadliest domestic terrorist attack in American history. He oversaw the search warrants, protected the chain of evidence, and insisted reporters have access to legal proceedings.
“We wanted someone who could make sure that the investigation of the book was conducted and that any charges were bulletproof,” Gorelick said.
In this photo dated April 27, 1995, Merrick Garland speaks to the media after a hearing with Oklahoma City bomber Timothy McVeigh. Garland was assigned to the case because “we wanted someone who could make sure the investigation was carried out through the book and that any charges were bulletproof,” said former Assistant Attorney General Jamie Gorelick. Rick Bowmer / AP Hide caption
Rick Bowmer / AP
Rick Bowmer / AP
Prosecutors later convicted Timothy McVeigh and Terry Nichols for their roles in the bombing.
Former prosecutor Beth Wilkinson said Garland played an important role in other confrontations with extremists in those years, including a lengthy battle with the heavily armed Montana Freemen in 1996. The Justice Department and the FBI were keen to avoid a recurrence of deadly incidents in Waco, Texas, and Ruby Ridge, Idaho, to be avoided just a few years earlier.
“One of the examples I can think of is sometimes when there was these deadlocks where there were arrest warrants for someone or there was some kind of controversy between people challenging the federal government, Merrick’s first instinct was not I want don’t go in and arrest everyone, “said Wilkinson. “An attempt should be made – together with the FBI – to see whether these disputes can be resolved.”
Wilkinson said the FBI arrested the men months later in the Montana standoff. She attributed Garland’s quick thinking and cool head for preventing what could have been a tragic outcome.
“He is not an ideologist”
Almost the only criticism that Garland’s nomination aroused concerns the area of civil rights, where his record is less robust.
“Garland is temperate, so I don’t see him as the brave and visionary racial justice leader that some people have hoped for,” said Georgetown’s butler. “That he is not an ideologist is both good news and a concern for people who would like an attorney general to fulfill this moment of national reckoning inspired by the Black Lives movement and the assassination of George Floyd.”
Butler said he thinks Garland will take his racial justice advices from the White House. And he said the civil rights community is being cheered on by other members of the leadership team Biden announced for the Justice Department, including civil rights attorney Vanita Gupta, who was nominated as assistant attorney general, and Kristen Clarke, who heads the civil rights division of the division of rights.
Wade Henderson of the Leadership Conference on Civil and Human Rights said Garland was up to the task. But Henderson said it was a big deal.
“For example, the next attorney general must do everything in his power to fight for voting rights, police reform, criminal justice reform and LGBTQ equality,” he said.
For the past 24 years, Garland has served as a federal judge on the US Court of Appeals for the District of Columbia Circuit. In this role Garland hardly has a chance to share his personal views.
Carolyn Lerner, who once headed the U.S. special advisers office and is now chief mediator for DC Circuit, said Garland took early and important steps to update policies that protect employees from sexual harassment and other workplace misconduct.
“I think it’s very clear that Judge Garland cares a lot about these issues and he really wants the employees to be happy and comfortable in the workplace. When he was chief judge, he took his responsibility to these employees very seriously,” said Lerner.
Lerner said Garland wants to continue another of his projects at the Justice Department: tutoring sessions with a young public school student.
This year the judge is working with an 11-year-old boy and his twin sister. Their mother, Andrea Tucker, said Garland played math games with them on Zoom, sometimes with his wife.
“It makes it so interactive for them and it’s so fun and they can’t get enough of it,” Tucker said.
It turns out to be the kind of public service Garland has always wanted to do – even if it involves math.