WASHINGTON (Reuters) – In 1995, Merrick Garland was tasked with supervising a sprawling U.S. Justice Department criminal investigation into the bombing of a federal office building in Oklahoma City that killed 168 people.
Former colleagues recall that he maintained his composure as he surveyed the crime scene, coordinated the investigation among numerous law enforcement agencies and put together a trial team to bring bomber Timothy McVeigh and his co-conspirator Terry Nichols to justice.
“It really was one of those things that took a lot of organization, coordination, smarts. Merrick Garland had it all,” said Donna Bucella, a former Justice Department colleague who worked alongside him in the aftermath of the bombing.
Now, 26 years later, the threat of domestic terrorism is once again at the forefront of Justice Department’s agenda as Garland, 68, prepares for a new role as President Joe Biden’s pick for attorney general. The topic is likely to be a major theme on Monday when Garland appears for his confirmation hearing before the Senate Judiciary Committee.
If confirmed by the full Senate, he will inherit the beginnings of a probe into the deadly Jan. 6 storming of the U.S. Capitol by former President Donald Trump’s supporters, as well as the challenge of preventing future domestic attacks.
Garland will also face the daunting task of rebuilding a civil rights enforcement program that many advocates say was left in tatters by the Trump administration, promoting initiatives to eliminate racial disparities in criminal justice, and restoring morale among Justice Department employees, whom Trump repeatedly attacked as being part of a “deep state.”
“He will have his hands full with many different priorities,” said Jamie Gorelick, a former deputy attorney aeneral who attended Harvard University with Garland in the early 1970s and in 1994 tapped him to serve as her principal deputy.
Garland has served as a judge on the U.S. Court of Appeals for the District of Columbia Circuit, one of 13 federal appeals courts, since 1997.
Former President Barack 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.
His confirmation this time around is considered a near-certainty, as several key Senate Republicans have endorsed him.
Garland would take the helm of the department at a fraught moment, after the May 25 police killing of George Floyd led to widespread protests over systemic racism and police violence against African Americans.
In accepting Biden’s nomination, Garland said he believes the department’s top priorities will be “ensuring racial equity” and “meeting the evolving threat of violent extremism.”
“If confirmed, those are the principles to which I will be devoted as attorney general,” he said.
Gorelick recalled that Garland was a strong advocate for civil rights even in college, when he served with her on a committee that fought for female students to have equal access to basic things from post-grad fellowships to tickets to football games.
“Merrick was a staunch ally in these debates. He was as great a feminist as you could find on campus,” she said.
Beyond policy, part of the task of attorney general will also be to restore confidence in the department’s independence.
Under former Attorney General William Barr, many career prosecutors were dismayed to see Barr intervene directly in criminal cases in ways that benefited Trump’s political allies, including former national security adviser Michael Flynn and Trump’s longtime friend Roger Stone.
“He has a very demoralized institution after Barr and Trump, and so I think his top priority will be to reinvigorate the department,” said Mark Tuohey, a defense attorney who argued against Garland during a six-month civil negligence and breach of contract case against a savings and loan bank and its executives in the late 1980s.
“The department has really been in a very different course the last four years, and he has got to reorient, and realign, and he’ll do it.”
(Reporting by Sarah N. Lynch; Editing by Scott Malone and Jonathan Oatis)