As a judge, Garland earned a reputation as a moderate consensus builder, and Biden selected him because he was viewed as someone who could restore the Justice Department’s credibility and independence from the White House on criminal matters.
He enjoyed bipartisan support in his confirmation. Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) said before the vote that Garland had a “long reputation as a straight shooter and legal expert” and that his left-leaning views were “within the legal mainstream.” But the support was not unanimous. Sen. Ted Cruz (R-Tex.), who voted against Garland’s confirmation, said that despite Garland’s reputation for integrity, he had “refused to make clear that he would stand against the politicization of the department, which we saw during the Obama-Biden years.”
Garland has vowed to make decisions on criminal matters without regard to politics, and that the agency on his watch will be dedicated to fighting discrimination and domestic terrorism. He has said his first briefing will focus on the investigation into the Jan. 6 riot at the U.S. Capitol — a sprawling, nationwide case that already has produced charges against about 300 people.
Garland will be taking office later than his recent predecessors. Trump’s first attorney general, Jeff Sessions, was confirmed on Feb. 8, 2017, and President Barack Obama’s first attorney general, Eric H. Holder Jr., was confirmed on Feb. 2, 2009. But their nominations were announced earlier during the presidential transition than Garland’s was.
Garland’s confirmation came with more bipartisan support than Trump’s nominees received. Sessions was confirmed in a 52-to-47 vote, and Attorney General William P. Barr was confirmed in a 54-to-45 vote. In the Obama administration, Attorney General Loretta E. Lynch was confirmed in a 56-to-43 vote and Holder in a 75-to-21 vote.
Even before Garland was in the job, the Justice Department had steadily been rolling back policies adopted during the Trump administration and changing its position in civil cases. But with Garland in place, officials are expected to do even more.
Garland, for example, will have to craft a new criminal charging policy for the Justice Department, after Biden’s acting attorney general, Monty Wilkinson, took what he called the “interim” step of revoking the Trump-era directive that prosecutors should seek the most-serious provable charges.
Garland also probably will have to decide what posture the Justice Department will take on implementing the federal death penalty, which had been paused in the Obama administration but resumed under Trump. Garland has signaled that he is open to a pause and that it would be within Biden’s purview to order as much.
Garland also has suggested he would favor a relaxation of the department’s pursuit of marijuana cases in states where the substance is legal, and has suggested he favors using court-enforced consent decrees again to spur changes at local police departments, a tactic the Trump administration all but abandoned. Such changes would push the department leftward and probably draw some conservative criticism.
Obama tapped Garland for the Supreme Court seat in March 2016, although Republicans refused even to hold a hearing on the nomination, saying the vacancy left by Justice Antonin Scalia’s death had come too close to the presidential election. When Trump won, he tapped Neil M. Gorsuch to fill the seat. Garland’s becoming attorney general will leave a vacancy on the U.S. Court of Appeals for the D.C. Circuit, which Biden will be able to fill.