Merrick Garland takes over the Justice Department determined to curb the rise of white supremacist violence after the Jan. 6 insurrection on the U.S. Capitol, and the sprawling investigation of that attack will largely define his tenure as attorney general.
The Senate voted 70-30 on Wednesday to confirm Garland as attorney general, a role known as the nation’s top law enforcement official, leading a department that oversees the nation’s immigration courts, investigates civil rights violations at local law enforcement agencies or in voting laws, and scrutinizes business mergers in technology, health care and other industries.
Garland, who has been a widely respected federal appeals court judge in Washington since 1997, will rejoin a department where he once led the prosecution against another strain of homegrown terrorism, Oklahoma City bomber Timothy McVeigh.
Garland assured senators that his first priority would be to get up to speed on the probe into the Jan. 6 attack, which had forced most of them to flee from the Senate floor as a pro-Trump mob stormed the Capitol’s hallways.
That investigation has already led to hundreds of federal charges, with some arrests of members far-right groups or law enforcement, and raised questions about how to root out a problem that has endured, appeared and reappeared, for centuries.
And Garland indicated during his confirmation hearing last month he is well aware that the Justice Department’s moves could be an inflection point for the country, and how the effort will require more funding to go beyond the insurrection investigation.
He placed the Jan. 6 attack along a line of racially motivated cases that go back past Oklahoma City in 1995 — all the way back to the battles of the original Justice Department against the Ku Klux Klan — and said now is a more dangerous period than after the Oklahoma City bombing.
“I intend to give the career prosecutors who are working on this matter 24/7 all of the resources they could possibly require to do this,” Garland told the Senate Judiciary Committee at his confirmation hearing.
“And at the same time, I intend to make sure that we look more broadly to look at where this is coming from, what other groups there might be that could raise the same problem in the future and that we protect the American people,” Garland said.
Wade Henderson of the Leadership Conference on Civil and Human Rights told lawmakers in testimony last month that his group had asked Garland to ask Congress for more appropriations to address hate crime violence, and “that they make more of an issue of this” than previous administrations have done.
But Henderson also told a House Judiciary subcommittee that the civil rights group had asked Garland to look inward at the Justice Department, to find ways to address the problem of extremism in law enforcement, “similar to what Lloyd Austin has announced toward the Department of Defense.”
Austin, a retired four-star general, is the nation’s first Black secretary of Defense. He told Congress he would work to stamp out racism and extremism within the military.
Michael German, a fellow at the Brennan Center who conducted undercover operations against white supremacists and far-right militia groups as an FBI special agent, said there are other policy moves for the Justice Department to combat the problem.
The Justice Department and the FBI choose not to prioritize the investigation and prosecution of white supremacists and far-right violence as a matter of policy and practice, German told the subcommittee.
“They do not even collect accurate data regarding such attacks,” he said.
And the FBI regularly warns its agents that white supremacists and far-right militants they investigate often have active links to law enforcement, German said.
He noted that several police officers were among those arrested for breaching the Capitol, and membership records of the Oath Keepers group reportedly include applicants claiming to be Immigration and Customs Enforcement officers, a Secret Service agent and two FBI employees.
“Yet, the Justice Department has no national strategy to protect communities policed by these dangerously compromised law enforcers,” German said. “The involvement of law enforcement and military in these groups makes them more dangerous.”
The Justice Department under Garland also will play a role in Biden administration policies on voting laws, as legislatures in Georgia and other Republican-led states are proposing voting law changes in the wake of the 2020 election that could disproportionally make it harder for minority voters to cast ballots.
President Joe Biden picked civil rights lawyers Vanita Gupta and Kristen Clarke for leadership roles in areas that enforce voting laws, and Democratic members of Congress will watch how aggressively Garland and the Justice Department fight back.
“As the country has become more diverse, not just states like California and New York, but throughout the nation, it’s no coincidence that we have seen a resurgence of white supremacy and violent extremism,” California Democratic Sen. Alex Padilla told Garland at the confirmation hearing. “And history is clear. Voter suppression is rooted in white supremacy.”
-Todd Ruger, CQ-Roll Call