“Mr. Levi entered office under the most difficult and trying circumstances,” Kennedy said in January 1977, “yet he leaves a department once again characterized by integrity, intellectual honesty and commitment to equal justice.”
The Levi example is on many minds as President-elect Joe Biden ponders whom he should choose as the nation’s attorney general. I specifically say “the nation’s” rather than “his” because one of Biden’s essential tasks in the wake of President Trump’s self-aggrandizing, self-referential presidency is to make clear that the Justice Department works for every American. It should never be reduced to being a mere tool of a president’s will.
Many of those talking about Levi have another son of Chicago in mind for the job. By experience and temperament, in the respect he has won across political and philosophical lines, and in his personal dedication to the work of the Justice Department, Judge Merrick Garland is exactly the right choice for this moment.
I should say right away that I was reluctant to write this because I have known Garland since college, so I can be suspected, fairly, of having a bias in his favor. Anyone who knows Garland has a deep affection for someone who is “a sweet spirit,” as former governor of Oklahoma Frank Keating, a Republican, nicely put it.
But on reflection, it seemed to me that those who know Garland best should testify to his astonishing integrity — that word again — his core decency (reflected in the gratitude he inspires among all who have worked for and with him) and his passionate dedication to a very old-fashioned and now desperately needed sense of public service.
Garland was a Supreme Court clerk, did a series of stints in the Justice Department and has been a judge on the U.S. Court of Appeals for the District of Columbia Circuit since 1997, including seven years as chief judge. Unfortunately, he is best known for having been kept off the Supreme Court by the unconscionable blockade organized by Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.)
When President Obama named Garland after Scalia’s death in 2016, McConnell refused the nominee even a hearing, which is in fact revealing. McConnell knew how many Republicans had spoken of Garland as a wise choice for Obama. He also knew how much harder it would be to make a case against Garland after his record was carefully examined and he was given a chance to speak for himself. Knowing it would be hard to say no to Garland on the merits, McConnell swept aside the merits.
I know there are progressives who think Garland is too moderate and want greater diversity in Biden’s Cabinet. There are other fine candidates on Biden’s shortlist, including former deputy attorney general Sally Yates, former Massachusetts Governor Deval Patrick and outgoing Sen. Doug Jones (D-Ala.).
But it is precisely because so many Republicans have extoled Garland’s qualities — some even tried to recruit him to be FBI director after Trump fired James B. Comey in 2017 — that he is the ideal person to untangle the mess that Trump and Attorney General William P. Barr will leave behind. This includes deciding what to do about potential violations of law during Trump’s presidency.
Yes, Garland has a moderate’s demeanor, but Republicans kept him off the court precisely because his rulings on issues ranging from labor rights to the environment were consistent with progressive values. He is a champion of racial justice, and his experience as a prosecutor could make him precisely the right person to implement the far-reaching reforms our criminal justice system so urgently requires.
And the man who oversaw the prosecution of Oklahoma City bomber Timothy McVeigh is as alive as anyone to the threat of far right and white supremacist violence.
It was Edward Levi who warned against the danger of seeing all “human relationships … in terms of the manipulation of power.” This approach, Levi said, “strips people of their humanness” and “converts all the other good attributes people have into just an ability or a desire to manipulate others.”
There could hardly be a more appropriate admonition at the end of the Trump interlude. And Garland, whose worldview is the antithesis of everything Levi criticized, would be the proper antidote.
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