As a sitting judge, Judge Garland is an unusual choice — but also an inspired one for perhaps the most important job in the next administration.
Judge Garland is best known for what he did not do: ascend to the Supreme Court after President Barack Obama nominated him in 2016 to replace the late Antonin Scalia. But even as Republican senators denied him a seat on the nation’s highest court, they insisted that their partisan power play had nothing to do with Judge Garland himself. That is because he is a brilliant jurist of near-universal acclaim. His nomination to lead the Justice Department sends an emphatic message that Mr. Biden does not want what President Trump desired in an attorney general: a lackey who will serve as the president’s personal attorney. Instead, Mr. Biden chose an apolitical judge who will serve with the independence and credibility befitting the nation’s top lawyer.
The Justice Department needs that — badly. William P. Barr, Mr. Trump’s last attorney general, oversaw a dark time at the department. At the end, he retrieved a shred of his former reputation by refusing to dignify the president’s lies about election fraud. But Mr. Barr sacrificed most of his good name during the rest of his tenure, particularly when he undid the work of line prosecutors in order to rescue the president’s lawbreaking friends from punishment. These and other acts from Mr. Barr and Mr. Trump shattered morale and drained public confidence.
Judge Garland has the best chance of any to turn the ship. He has deep roots in the Justice Department, serving as a line prosecutor during the George H.W. Bush administration and leading the Oklahoma City bombing investigation during the Bill Clinton years. Most importantly, he has earned a reputation for being a fair, honest, open-minded judge through more than two decades on the U.S. Court of Appeals for the District of Columbia Circuit, the second-most-powerful court in the land. His opinions rarely drew dissents, he pushed to forge unanimous rulings, and he meticulously avoided grandiose judicial pronouncements. Sen. Lindsey O. Graham (R-S.C.), a Trump loyalist, reacted to his nomination by calling Judge Garland “a sound choice” of “great character.”
Mr. Biden’s choices for other top Justice Department positions were also exemplary. He tapped Lisa Monaco to be Judge Garland’s deputy attorney general. Ms. Monaco brings widely recognized expertise in the department’s crucial national security mission, having previously served at the top levels of the FBI and run the Justice Department’s National Security Division.
While one can take issue with a choice or two, Mr. Biden’s Cabinet picks show what a welcome change his administration will be. With a few exceptions, Mr. Trump elevated a collection of ideologues, sycophants and mediocrities to run the federal government. Mr. Biden, by contrast, is surrounding himself with a historically diverse group of capable, experienced individuals dedicated to public service.