Senate confirms Merrick Garland to be US attorney general

Judge Merrick Garland, President Joe Biden's pick to be attorney general, answers questions from Sen. John Kennedy, R-La., as he appears before the Senate Judiciary Committee for his confirmation hearing, on Capitol Hill in Washington, Monday, Feb. 22, 2021. (AP Photo/J. Scott Applewhite) (Copyright 2021 The Associated Press. All rights reserved)

WASHINGTON – The Senate confirmed Merrick Garland on Wednesday to be the next U.S. attorney general with a strong bipartisan vote, placing the widely-respected, veteran judge in the post as President Joe Biden has vowed to restore the Justice Department's reputation for independence.

Democrats have praised Garland, a federal appeals court judge who was snubbed by Republicans for a seat on the Supreme Court in 2016, as a highly qualified and honorable jurist who is uniquely qualified to lead the department after a tumultuous four years under former President Donald Trump. Many Republicans praised him as well, saying he has the right record and temperament for the moment. He was confirmed 70-30.

Garland will now inherit a Justice Department embattled by a turbulent era under Trump, who insisted that the attorney general and the department must be loyal to him personally, battering the department’s reputation. In the last month of Trump's presidency, Attorney General William Barr resigned after refuting Trump's false claims that widespread electoral fraud had led to his defeat.

Trump's pressure on officials, particularly on Barr and former Attorney General Jeff Sessions over the department's probe into his campaign's ties to Russia, prompted abundant criticism from Democrats over what they saw as the politicizing of the nation’s top law enforcement agencies.

“After Donald Trump spent four years — four long years — subverting the powers of the Justice Department for his own political benefit, treating the attorney general like his own personal defense lawyer, America can breathe a sigh of relief that we’re going to have someone like Merrick Garland leading the Justice Department,” said Majority Leader Chuck Schumer, D-N.Y., ahead of the vote. “Someone with integrity, independence, respect for the rule of law and credibility on both sides of the aisle.”

Senate Republican Leader Mitch McConnell — who prevented Garland from becoming a Supreme Court Justice in 2016 when he blocked his nomination — said he was voting to confirm Garland because of “his long reputation as a straight shooter and a legal expert” and that his “left-of-center perspective” was still within the legal mainstream.

“Let’s hope our incoming attorney general applies that no-nonsense approach to the serious challenges facing the Department of Justice and our nation,” McConnell said.

Garland's nomination was widely seen as a redemption after McConnell had blocked his Supreme Court nomination, taking a huge political gamble after the death of Justice Antonin Scalia by saying that the next president should get the pick, not outgoing President Barack Obama. Trump was then down in the polls, but McConnell's bet paid off when the Republican won the presidency. Garland's nomination floundered for nine months, and he never got a hearing.