Merrick Garland could be confirmed as the next US attorney general as early as this week, after the Senate Judiciary Committee advanced his nomination for consideration before the full chamber by a bipartisan 15-7 vote.
Mr Garland has breezed through his nomination process with the Senate Democratic majority controlling committee gavels.
The longtime DC Circuit Court judge’s ascent to the top spot in Justice Department leadership has been welcomed by Democrats and even some Republicans as a welcome change from the tumult of the Donald Trump years.
On Monday, GOP Senators Lindsey Graham of South Carolina, Chuck Grassley of Iowa, John Cornyn of Texas, and Thom Tillis of North Carolina voted with all 11 Democrats on the Judiciary panel to advance Mr Garland’s nomination out of committee.
Mr Garland’s track record of honesty and integrity on the federal bench were enough to earn the votes on Monday of four GOP senators on the Judiciary panel: Lindsey Graham of South Carolina, Chuck Grassley of Iowa, John Cornyn of Texas, and Thom Tillis of North Carolina voted with all 11 Democrats to advance Mr Garland’s nomination out of committee.
When Joe Biden’s transition team leaked its intention to nominate Mr Garland for attorney general, Mr Graham, the outgoing GOP chairman of the Senate Judiciary Committee, was effusive in his praise.
“He is a man of great character, integrity, and tremendous competency in the law,” the South Carolina Republican said, adding that Mr Garland was a “sound choice” for the top legal post in the country.
While Mr Trump and a handful of congressional Republicans over the last four years assailed the DOJ, FBI, and other law enforcement agencies for being run by a so-called “deep state” of malign, anti-Trump bureaucrats, Mr Garland and Mr Biden have expressed their desire to rebuild morale at the department.
“Under President Trump and Attorneys General [Jeff] Sessions and [William] Barr, we saw a demoralisation of this department. We saw political favours being handed out right and left and we saw the morale of this department sink to a new low,” Judiciary Chairman Dick Durbin said at Mr Garland’s confirmation hearing last week.
“We need the Attorney General to lead us forward,” he said.
Mr Garland — a former Supreme Court nominee who was snubbed by the Senate GOP majority in 2016 under the short-lived pretence that justices should not be confirmed in presidential election years — has received bipartisan plaudits on the way to his new post in the Biden administration, even from senators who ultimately did not vote for him.
Senator John Kennedy of Louisiana last week called Mr Garland a “very bright person,” CNN reported.
Mr Grassley, who blocked Mr Garland’s Supreme Court nomination in 2016 but voted to advance his nomination out of committee on Monday, praised the judge’s career of public service.
“Judge Garland is a good pick to lead the Department of Justice. I don’t think anyone doubts his credentials,” Mr Grassley said in a statement last week. “He has decades of experience as one of the most respected appellate judges in the country. And before that, he was a great prosecutor. When the domestic terrorist, Timothy McVeigh, was executed for his crimes, we had Merrick Garland to thank for it,” Mr Grassley said, referring to Mr Garland’s prosecution under the death penalty of the Oklahoma City bomber.
Mr Garland will be taking over the department at a time when several politically sensitive investigations are still ongoing.
The department is probing Mr Biden’s own son, Hunter Biden, for his overseas business connections. Federal prosecutor John Durham is also continuing his probe into the 2016 FBI counterintelligence operation surrounding Mr Trump’s and his associates’ relationship with foreign countries including Russia.
Mr Garland confirmed last week that the president had not spoken with him about the Hunter Biden investigation.
“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,” Mr Garland said in response to a query from Mr Grassley about the probe.
“That was the reason that I was willing to take on this job. So the answer to your question is no.”