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Opinion Merrick Garland shows why he was the right pick to be attorney general

Merrick Garland, President Biden’s nominee for attorney general, appeared before the Senate Judiciary Committee for his confirmation hearing on Feb. 22. (Video: The Washington Post)
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Merrick Garland, appearing for his confirmation hearing to lead the Justice Department on Monday, was the model of judicial deportment, precision and character. Two dozen years as a federal appeals court judge provided him with an aura of authority that largely silenced Republican partisans looking for a gotcha question or wedge to create controversy. (When Sen. Lindsey O. Graham of South Carolina posed a preposterous question — did Garland think James Comey was a good FBI director? — Garland without rancor simply said that was not useful conversation.)

Garland reiterated his commitment to keep the department free of political interference. Asked whether he discussed the Hunter Biden case with the president, he said he had not and reiterated that “the president made abundantly clear in every public statement before and after my nomination that decisions about investigations and prosecutions will be left to the Justice Department.” He pledged to continue investigating the Jan. 6 violent insurrection and "pursue these leads wherever they take us.” And he made his views on the previous administration’s family separation policy clear: “I think that the policy was shameful. I can’t imagine anything worse than tearing parents from their children. And we will provide all the cooperation we possibly can.”

Garland has two professional experiences under his belt that make him exceptionally well-suited to assume leadership of the Justice Department at this moment. The first was his tenure under Ben Civiletti, whom Garland described as “the last of the trio of post-Watergate attorneys general.” It was that period, he said, that laid the foundation for “the norms that will ensure the department’s adherence to the rule of law.” It is precisely those norms — the Justice Department’s independence, its strict control of communication with political figures in the White House, its respect for the career attorneys and its guidelines for prosecutions — that he must now restore. Second, he prosecuted the deadly 1995 Oklahoma City bombing case. Garland testified that he believes the United States is facing an even more dangerous era than then, a clear sign he appreciates the threat of domestic terrorism.

Attorney General Merrick Garland was a top Justice Department official when domestic terrorists attacked the Murrah Federal Building in 1995. (Video: Joshua Carroll/The Washington Post)

Aside from the particular answers, a couple aspects of the hearing are noteworthy. First is the appalling hypocrisy of Republican senators grilling Garland as to whether he will allow the Justice Department to be politicized. They were silent during the last administration and as such enabled the assault on the stature, reputation and morale of the department. The same senators who refused to convict the disgraced ex-president for fear of alienating the MAGA crowd but now propound on the “rule of law” illustrate their own unfitness for office.

In addition, the gap between Garland and his immediate predecessors — who curried favor with, enabled and ran interference for their boss — could not be greater. Contrast Garland’s view of the ongoing menace of racial discrimination with William P. Barr’s denial of systemic racism. Contrast Garland’s determination to protect his department from politicized prosecution with Barr’s eagerness to protect his boss’s cronies.

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When you elect a willfully ignorant narcissist with a penchant for authoritarian power, you get dull-witted, morally feeble and spineless nominees. The GOP, which decries expertise and ignores the truth, inevitably winds up with intentionally ignorant and dishonest senior officials. By contrast, a party that believes in the ability of government to fulfill the promise of the Constitution truly will find “the best people.”

Garland is proving himself to be among Biden’s best picks. That spells bad news for White supremacists, opponents of criminal justice reform and Republican senators who have propounded the Big Lie that the election was stolen.

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