President-elect Joe Biden will nominate federal appeals judge Merrick Garland to be the next U.S. attorney general, a Biden transition official said on Wednesday, a choice most Americans know as the Supreme Court nominee of President Barack Obama memorably blocked by Republicans.
Garland, 68, serves as a judge on the U.S. Court of Appeals for the District of Columbia Circuit. Obama, a Democrat, nominated him to the Supreme Court in 2016 while Biden was vice president, but the Republican-controlled U.S. Senate refused to hold hearings on the nomination.
Biden, who takes office in two weeks, also intends to nominate Justice Department veterans Lisa Monaco as deputy attorney general and Kristen Clarke as the assistant attorney general to the Civil Rights Division, the official said.
During his election campaign, Biden pledged to take steps to end racial disparities in sentencing by eliminating mandatory minimum sentences, ending the use of the federal death penalty and restoring the Justice Department’s role of investigating and holding police departments accountable for “systemic misconduct.”
While many of these initiatives would require approval from Congress, Garland as attorney general will still have significant power to address these topics through changes in policy, such as by instructing prosecutors not to seek the death penalty or to make charging decisions that will not trigger mandatory minimums.
The news came as Democrats looked set to win two U.S. Senate seats up for grabs in Georgia runoff elections held on Tuesday, which would give the party control of both houses of Congress and give Biden more leeway to enact his agenda.
Garland, who has served on the federal appeals bench since 1997, is no stranger to the Justice Department.
Prior to becoming a judge, he worked as a federal prosecutor where he helped secure a conviction against Timothy McVeigh for the 1995 Oklahoma City bombing that killed 168 people. He was also on the team that helped secure a conviction of former District of Columbia Mayor Marion Barry for cocaine possession.
Garland held other key posts at the Justice Department, including serving as principal deputy associate attorney general to Deputy Attorney General Jamie Gorelick starting in 1994.
Obama nominated Garland in March 2016 to replace long-serving conservative justice Antonin Scalia, who died on Feb. 13, 2016. But then-Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell, a Republican, refused to consider the nomination on the grounds it should not occur in a presidential election year.
That stance, assailed by Democrats at the time, came under further criticism two months before the 2020 presidential election when McConnell rushed to confirm Republican President Donald Trump’s nominee Amy Coney Barrett to fill the vacancy of the late liberal Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg.
While serving as attorney general under Trump until last month, William Barr faced criticism for his willingness to intervene in criminal cases in ways that benefited Trump’s political allies, such as Michael Flynn and Roger Stone.
He came under criticism also from human rights groups and others for his decision to carry out the federal death penalty after a 17-year hiatus and his willingness to use federal agents to quell violence during protests over racial injustice in policing.
Kristen Clarke currently serves as the president and executive director of the Lawyers’ Committee for Civil Rights Under Law. She previously served as a federal prosecutor in the department’s Civil Rights Division and also worked for the NAACP Legal Defense and Educational Fund Inc where she focused on voting rights cases.
Lisa Monaco previously served as assistant attorney general to the Justice Department’s National Security Division, as well as principal deputy assistant attorney general. Her name had been floated now for weeks as a candidate for a high-profile job in the Biden administration.