President-elect Joe Biden put together the top leadership of the Justice Department with extreme care. He waited until the Senate runoffs in Georgia were over to gain certainty that he could backfill the seat on the U.S. Court of Appeals for the District of Columbia Circuit that his pick for attorney general, Judge Merrick Garland, would vacate. Even before the seditious attack on the Capitol incited by the exiting president, Garland had his work cut out for him. For four years, a lawless administration politicized and sullied the Justice Department. Now, the task ahead seems daunting.

Biden introduced his picks for key Justice Department posts on Thursday. Garland meticulously designed his remarks to signal that he fully grasps the enormity of the task ahead. He also laid out his extensive knowledge of the department. “Entering the Department of Justice will be a kind of homecoming for me,” he said. “My very first job after serving as a judicial law clerk was to work as a special assistant to then-Attorney General Ben Civiletti.” He later added: "In the decades that followed my first tour of duty at the department, I returned again and again to work in different roles: as a career line assistant U.S. attorney; as a criminal division supervisor; and, finally, as a senior official in the Office of the Deputy Attorney General. In the latter role, I worked with every component of the department, on issues ranging from civil rights and antitrust, to domestic terrorism and national security.”

The message to career attorneys was plain: He is a lawyer’s lawyer — someone who respects the institution and its professionals. He will enjoy instant credibility in the department.

Garland also described the essence of his task, namely to reestablish the sanctity of the rule of law. “The essence of the rule of law is that like cases are treated alike: That there not be one rule for Democrats and another for Republicans, one rule for friends and another for foes; one rule for the powerful and another for the powerless; one rule for the rich and another for the poor — or different rules depending on one’s race or ethnicity.” That was as effective a description as you will find of what’s needed to dismantle President Trump’s quest to design one law for himself and his cronies. The decision whether to prosecute Trump might be Garland’s most consequential.

Garland also lends stature and credibility to the promise of making independent prosecutorial decisions. As he said:

[President-elect Biden] promised that the person he chose to lead the Department would have the “independent capacity to decide who gets prosecuted and who doesn’t.”
Vice President-elect Harris also publicly said: “Any decision coming out of the Justice Department should be based on facts; it should be based on the law; it should not be influenced by politics. Period.”
I could not agree more. And I would not have agreed to be considered for attorney general under any other conditions.

In addition, Garland showed he understands the structural repair job that awaits him. He listed the accomplishments of the Justice Department’s leadership after Watergate: “guaranteeing the independence of the department from partisan influence in law enforcement investigations; regulating communications with the White House; establishing guidelines for FBI investigations; ensuring respect for the professionalism of DOJ’s career lawyers and agents; and setting out principles to guide the exercise of prosecutorial discretion.” These sorts of guidelines are precisely what must be erected to prevent more attorneys general from acting like the president’s lawyer, not the country’s.

Finally, Garland put particular emphasis on civil rights. Given Trump’s horrendous record and the Black Lives Matter response to police violence, Garland will need to return the Justice Department to its historic mission. He recalled that “the department was founded in the midst of Reconstruction following the Civil War, with its first principal task being to ensure compliance with the 13th, 14th, and 15th amendments.” He reminded us that the department formed its identity battling against the KKK and other hate groups. “In that battle, the department successfully deployed its considerable resources to ensure civil rights, which had come under militant attack,” he said, drawing an obvious analogy to the present situation.

In addition to Garland, Biden chose highly qualified women, Lisa Monaco and Vanita Gupta, for the No. 2 and 3 slots in the department, respectively. They bring not only diversity but also experience ranging from national security to civil rights. The selection of Gupta, who is president and chief executive of the Leadership Conference on Civil and Human Rights, will please the civil rights community. “Yesterday’s horrific events at the Capitol reminded us that our democracy cannot be taken for granted — that our nation has a long history of disinformation and racial terror,” she said on Thursday. “It also reminded us that our values, our Constitution, our democracy — they do not protect themselves. People with courage do.” In a stirring call to reform, she declared, “It will not be enough to restore what has been undermined or lost. This moment demands bold leadership.” Those who have been waiting for lawyers who practice because they passionately love the law — not for power or for a cult figure — could rejoice.

Finishing the rollout, Kristen Clarke, picked to head the civil rights division, brought hope to a country that has gone backward on race and justice over the past four years. “If I am fortunate enough to be confirmed, we will turn the page on hate and close the door on discrimination by enforcing our federal civil rights laws,” she stated firmly. That simple statement of purpose, a repudiation of the white supremacist ethos (stoked by Trump) that has poisoned America, was reassuring and even thrilling. Coming from her role as head of the National Lawyers’ Committee for Civil Rights Under Law, she, too, will satisfy progressive activists’ demand for a heavyweight to fill this position.

The team Biden put together is balanced, deeply experienced, competent and committed to putting "Justice” back in the Justice Department. Americans on Thursday got the reassurance they needed after Wednesday’s deeply unsettling violence and mayhem. Yes, we really are moving toward an infinitely better Justice Department. That is something to celebrate.

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