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Merrick Garland Is To Be Joe Biden's Nominee For Attorney General

Merrick Garland came to national attention in 2016 when President Barack Obama nominated him to the U.S. Supreme Court. Senate Republicans denied Garland even a hearing for the post.
Susan Walsh
Merrick Garland came to national attention in 2016 when President Barack Obama nominated him to the U.S. Supreme Court. Senate Republicans denied Garland even a hearing for the post.

Updated at 1:10 p.m. ET

Federal appeals court Judge Merrick Garland will be nominated to serve as attorney general in the administration of President-elect Joe Biden, NPR has learned from two sources familiar with the process.

Garland, 68, is the widely respected former chief judge of the U.S. Court of Appeals for the District of Columbia Circuit. He has deep roots inside the Justice Department, where he launched his career decades ago.

The sources also told NPR that former prosecutor and national security official Lisa Monaco will be tapped to serve as deputy attorney general, and former civil rights leader Vanita Gupta will be nominated as associate attorney general.

Kristen Clarke, who has led the Lawyers' Committee for Civil Rights Under Law, is Biden's choice to run the Civil Rights Division.

Track record inside DOJ

Garland oversaw the prosecution of Oklahoma City bomber Timothy McVeigh and gained significant management experience inside the sprawling department in the 1990s. He also was a career prosecutor inside the U.S. attorney's office in Washington, D.C., where, among other things, he investigated and helped bring to justice the city's mayor, Marion Barry.

A jury convicted Barry on a drug charge but deadlocked on several perjury counts.

Garland came to national attention in 2016 when President Barack Obama nominated him to the U.S. Supreme Court to fill the seat vacated by the death of Justice Antonin Scalia.

Despite his qualifications and a history of support from conservatives, Senate Republicans denied Garland even a hearing for the post, and he quietly returned to his job on what's considered the second most important court in the nation.

On the bench, Garland focused on professionalism, collegiality and transparency, making audio of arguments widely available.

Biden team seeks restoration

Some Justice Department veterans had been looking to history for a way to move ahead from the chaotic Trump era in which the president has routinely attacked federal prosecutors and the FBI and has pushed department leaders to help his friends and punish his enemies.

Trump's second attorney general, William Barr, likened some of his employees to young students at a Montessori school.

Former Justice Department officials pointed out that after Watergate, President Gerald Ford enlisted former University of Chicago President Edward Levi to be attorney general and restore public confidence in the institution. The Justice Department bestows an award for honor and integrity in his name.

Supporters said Garland could play a similar role, sending twin messages: The department will operate free from political influence in law enforcement matters, and that its leaders will prioritize morale of the DOJ's career employees.

"He will restore the independence of the Department of Justice," said his friend and former DOJ colleague Jamie Gorelick. "And this will be a perfect capstone of his career, which has been devoted to the law, to the judiciary for the last 23 years, and before that, at every seat at the Department of Justice."

Among the first and thorniest issues the next attorney general will face is what, if anything, to do about allegations President Trump obstructed justice or violated other laws before and during his occupancy in the White House.

The next attorney general also inherits a tax probe of Biden's son Hunter. The president-elect has defended his son but also pledged his Justice Department will operate free from improper influence by the White House.

Progressives likely disappointed

Garland's selection could frustrate more progressive members of the diverse coalition that helped elect Biden. On the bench, the judge developed a moderate to conservative record on criminal justice, according to an analysis by Tom Goldstein at SCOTUSblog.

A more recent analysis by professors at the University of Virginia concluded that Garland was "in line with the Republican appointees" on criminal cases.

The leaders of seven major civil rights groups recently met with Biden and pressed him to make someone with civil rights and justice reform credentials the next leader of the Justice Department.

If he is confirmed by the Senate, Garland would join an institution that DOJ veterans have said is in need of a "salvage operation." One said the next leadership team needs to conduct a sweeping assessment of enforcement cases that were brought and not brought in the Trump era to see whether anything can be done now about them.

Allies praised Garland's steady temperament and his collegiality, two qualities that could help settle the workforce. At the court, Garland also became known for his focus on transparency, including efforts to make argument audio available to the public.

His move also would open up a lifetime-tenured seat on the federal appeals court in Washington, considered the second most important bench in the country. After Democrats appeared on track to win two seats in Georgia, the Senate arithmetic made it more likely Biden could nominate and confirm a candidate for that judgeship.

Two sources told NPR the Biden team has been looking to promote U.S. District Judge Ketanji Brown Jackson to a vacancy Garland may leave on the federal appeals court in Washington.

The presidential transition team has stressed the need to view the Justice Department nominees as a group.

Monaco, who as deputy attorney general would be responsible for day-to-day management of the department, launched her career prosecuting violent crimes as a federal prosecutor in Washington, later joining the task force investigating financial wrongdoing at the defunct energy company Enron, and becoming a righthand woman to former FBI Director Robert S. Mueller III. She was the first woman to serve as assistant attorney general for the National Security Division at the Justice Department.

She spent the last few years of the Obama administration as the former president's homeland security adviser.

Gupta, the choice to serve as associate attorney general, would oversee a portfolio that includes civil rights and civil litigation. Gupta has a long background in civil rights work and managed several crises in the Obama years.

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Carrie Johnson
Carrie Johnson is NPR's National Justice Correspondent.
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