Mitch McConnell backs Merrick Garland as attorney general 5 years after blocking his Supreme Court nomination

Garland was picked by Barack Obama in 2016 to succeed late Justice Antonin Scalia but the GOP-controlled Senate refused to confirm him citing it was an election year


                            Mitch McConnell backs Merrick Garland as attorney general 5 years after blocking his Supreme Court nomination
Mitch McConnell backed Merrick Garland as attorney general (Getty Images)

It took five years for Merrick Garland to find a favorable audience in the Senate. The 68-year-old, who was once backed by former president Barack Obama to become a Supreme Court judge but found his candidature blocked by the upper chamber, was confirmed as the attorney general (AG) of the Joe Biden administration by the same on Wednesday, March 10. He will be the 86th AG. 

What was even more striking is that Mitch McConnell, who is currently serving as the Senate minority leader after the GOP lost control of the chamber, voted in favor of Garland. It was the veteran senator who had held up Garland’s nomination for 10 months in 2016 to stop Obama from picking a SCOTUS judge to replace the late Justice Antonin Scalia in his final year in office. The Republican-controlled Senate had argued then that a new president should pick the replacement for Scalia and Obama’s successor Donald Trump did the job by picking Neil Gorsuch in 2017. 

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Attorney General nominee Merrick Garland testifies during his confirmation hearing before the Senate Judiciary Committee in the Hart Senate Office Building on February 22, 2021, in Washington, DC (Getty Images)

When it came to bagging the top justice department job, Garland secured a 70-30 win in the Senate. The father of two, who served as the chief judge of the United States Court of Appeal for the District of Columbia Circuit till February last year, is a moderate judge with significant prosecutorial experience. He will take over the justice department at a time when it is facing challenges related to home-grown extremism.

Garland has already pledged to bring the rioters who stormed the Capitol on January 6 as well as those who have funded and organized the attack to justice. However, Garland faced criticism last month when he failed to respond clearly during the Senate confirmation hearing whether he believed “illegal entry” at the US’s border should remain a crime. Replying to Missouri Republican Senator Josh Hawley, Garland said he hadn’t thought about the question.

Dawn breaks over the Oklahoma National Memorial on the day of Timothy McVeigh''s execution June 11, 2001 in Oklahoma City, Oklahoma.

Merrick Garland's determined fight after Oklahoma City bombing

During his earlier stint at the justice department in 1995, Garland had traveled to Oklahoma City following a deadly bombing at the federal building that killed 168 people, including 19 children at a day-care center on the ground floor of the targeted building. Garland, then an associate deputy attorney general, vowed to bring the culprits to justice saying: "We promised that we would find the perpetrators, that we would bring them to justice, and that we would do it in a way that honored the Constitution.”

He handled the case meticulously and as per a report by National Public Radio: “It was the first of thousands of decisions, large and small, that Garland would make to ensure that the investigation and prosecution would be as flawless as possible.” It was his effort that helped convict Timothy McVeigh and his co-conspirator Terry Nichols. Garland’s impressive record in confronting extremists, which included a lengthy standoff with the heavily armed Montana Freeman in 1996, has also fueled expectations from him in dealing with the current waves of extremism in the US as the AG.

It was exactly five years ago in March 2016 that Garland became a national figure when Obama made him a nominee to the seat which fell empty following Scalia’s death in February the same year. But McConnell immediately announced that he was against Garland’s confirmation saying it was an election year and the people of the US should have a ‘voice’ in the process to confirm the SCOTUS judge. Gorsuch, a conservative judge, got the confirmation as Scalia’s replacement 11 days after Trump was sworn in as the president in January 2017. 

McConnell did not follow the same practice after RBG death

However, the GOP-controlled Senate did not practice the same when it came to appointing the successor to another SCOTUS judge Ruth Bader Ginsburg who passed away last September. Despite 2020 being an election year, the Senate rushed to confirm conservative Justice Amy Coney Barrett to the Supreme Court just eight days before the presidential election, quickly after Trump nominated her.

Garland’s name as Biden’s pick for the AG was leaked the morning of the Capitol insurrection. Biden, who was then the president-elect, finalized the decision only after the Democrats bagged the two key run-off elections in Georgia to win a majority in the Senate. 

Amy Coney Barrett with former president Donald Trump (Getty Images)

Garland has promised to keep justice dept away from politics

Garland, who succeeded in getting 20 GOP votes in the Senate, will have his tasks cut out as the justice department head. During his nomination process, Garland promised to not allow politics affect the working of the agency, something which was not happening much when Trump was the president. “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. That was the reason I was willing to take on this job,” Garland said. 

Biden has said that it will depend on Garland and his department’s career professionals to weigh in on any probe of Trump and to evaluate the ongoing tax probe of his son Hunter. In February, he also said that if confirmed, he would run the justice department independently, including on investigations that involve both the current and former presidents. “I am not the president’s lawyer, I am the United States’ lawyer,” he told Texas GOP Senator Ted Cruz. 

Garland’s parents fled anti-Semitism and found shelter in the US. He turned emotional while recounting their experience at his confirmation hearing last month. “The country took us in, protected us. And I feel an obligation to the country to pay back. This is the highest, best use of my own set of skills to pay back,” he said with his voice cracking.

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