Denied spot on U.S. Supreme Court, Merrick Garland confirmed as next attorney general

The U.S. Senate confirmed Merrick Garland to be the next U.S. attorney general with a strong bipartisan vote Wednesday, placing the widely-respected, veteran judge in the post after he was snubbed by Republicans for a spot on the U.S. Supreme Court in 2016.

Republicans blocked Garland's nomination in 2016 but widely praised him today

Judge Merrick Garland, U.S. President Joe Biden's pick to be attorney general, appears before the Senate Judiciary Committee on Feb. 22, 2021. Garland was confirmed to the post Wednesday. (J. Scott Applewhite/The Associated Press)

The U.S. Senate confirmed Merrick Garland to be the next U.S. attorney general with a strong bipartisan vote Wednesday, placing the widely-respected, veteran judge in the post as President Joe 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 U.S. Supreme Court in 2016, as a highly qualified and honourable jurist who is uniquely qualified to lead the department after a tumultuous four years under former president Donald Trump. Many Republicans praised him as well, saying he has the right record and temperament for the moment. The vote was 70-30.

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

Trump's pressure on officials, including on Barr and former attorney general 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 defence 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 Chuck Schumer, ahead of the vote. "Someone with integrity, independence, respect for the rule of law and credibility on both sides of the aisle."

Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell, seen here March 6, 2021, praised Garland and voted to confirm him, despite blocking his nomination to the Supreme Court in 2016. (Senate Television via The Associated Press)

Garland says department will be independent on his watch

Senate Republican Leader Mitch McConnell — 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-centre 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 Justice Antonin Scalia by saying that the next president should get the pick, not former U.S. president Barack Obama, who was about to leave office. 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 Democrat and Senate Judiciary Chairman Dick Durbin, just before the vote.

At his confirmation hearing 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 Rudy 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.

Priorities expected to shift

Separately, Garland will also be responsible for overseeing a special counsel investigation into the origins of the Russia probe, which shadowed Trump's presidency for more than two years. Garland will have to decide how to handle it and what to make public.

An experienced judge, Garland held senior positions at the Justice Department decades ago, including as a supervisor in the prosecution of the 1995 Oklahoma City bombing, which led to the execution of Timothy McVeigh. His experience prosecuting domestic terrorism cases could prove exceptionally valuable as investigations into the Capitol insurrection progress.

The department's priorities and messaging are expected to shift drastically in the Biden administration, with a focus more on civil rights issues, criminal justice overhauls and policing policies in the wake of nationwide protests over the death of Black Americans at the hands of law enforcement.

Sen. Tom Cotton, seen here Feb. 22, opposed Garland's confirmation. (Drew Angerer/Pool via The Associated Press)

That expected shift prompted some Republicans to oppose Garland's nomination, including Arkansas Sen. Tom Cotton, who said he believed the judge would be too soft on criminals and immigrants and "empower left wing radicals embedded inside the department."

At his confirmation hearing, Garland emphasized his commitment to combating racial discrimination in policing, telling senators that America doesn't "yet have equal justice." He also said he'd prioritize confronting the rise in extremist violence and domestic terror threats.

At one point in the hearing, he held back tears when speaking about his grandparents, who fled Russia for the U.S. amid antisemitism and persecution.

"The country took us in and protected us, and I feel an obligation to the country to pay back, and this is the highest, best use of my own set of skills to pay back," Garland said. "So I very much want to be the kind of attorney general that you're saying I could become, and I'll do my best to become that kind of attorney general."