After four years of a president who regarded the attorney general as his personal lawyer, it was vital that President-elect Joe Biden choose a head of the Justice Department whose independence and professionalism would be beyond dispute. Biden has risen to that challenge with his choice of U.S. Court of Appeals Judge Merrick B. Garland for that position.
Unlike some of the other contenders, Garland wasn’t someone who had endorsed Biden — as a federal judge he had to remain above politics. He would also bring to the position an impeccable reputation earned as a prosecutor, Justice Department official and judge. That the Republican-controlled Senate refused to act on President Barack Obama’s nomination of Garland to the Supreme Court in 2016 was a travesty.
Some Biden supporters had pressed the president-elect, as part of his commitment to a diverse administration, to name an African American as attorney general. Others worry that Garland, a former prosecutor who often ruled for the government in criminal cases, isn’t the face of an administration dedicated to criminal justice reform.
These concerns are understandable, but unpersuasive. Biden has emphasized diversity in his appointments, and he reportedly will do so in filling other high-level positions in the Justice Department with appointees who also can be expected to emphasize aggressive enforcement of civil rights. For example, he reportedly will nominate Kristen Clarke, president of the National Lawyers’ Committee for Civil Rights, to head the department’s Civil Rights Division.
Even as Republicans refused to consider Garland’s Supreme Court nomination — usually on the pretext that Supreme Court vacancies shouldn’t be filled in a presidential election year — they couldn’t dispute his professional qualifications or his integrity. In fact, Obama nominated Garland over potentially more polarizing candidates because it was hoped he would garner Republican support.
U.S. attorneys general have come from a variety of backgrounds. Some were former senators. Some were campaign allies or even relatives of the presidents who appointed them. Others have been former judges. Edward H. Levi, appointed by President Gerald Ford in the aftermath of Watergate, was a legal scholar and university president.
Different times call for different attributes in an attorney general. These times, like the post-Watergate era, call for an attorney general who has been aloof from politics.
After Trump and former Attorney General William Barr undermined the Justice Department’s image as an impartial enforcer of criminal law, Biden’s overriding priority is to restore the department’s reputation for integrity. To accomplish that mission, Garland is an inspired choice.