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More of President Biden's Cabinet nominees will face Senate confirmation hearings this week, including Tom Vilsack for secretary of agriculture and Xavier Becerra to lead Health and Human Services. West Virginia Democrat Joe Manchin said Friday he's going to oppose President Biden's pick to head the Office of Management and Budget, Neera Tanden, which narrows the chances for her confirmation.
But today is all about Merrick Garland. He'll appear before the Senate to take questions from lawmakers for the position of attorney general. Most people know Merrick Garland's name because of something that didn't happen. Garland never got a hearing after President Obama nominated him to serve on the Supreme Court five years ago. Here's NPR justice correspondent Carrie Johnson.
CARRIE JOHNSON, BYLINE: Merrick Garland has devoted nearly 45 years to the law, but he didn't start out that way, as he told Professor Martha Minow at Harvard Law School in 2016.
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MARTHA MINOW: Why didn't you go to law school in the first place?
MERRICK GARLAND: Chemistry. Well, chemistry and math.
JOHNSON: Garland had planned to become a doctor. He wanted to help people one on one. But his collision with the hard sciences spun him toward the law, where he's looked for that sort of direct connection ever since. In the mid-1980s, at his law firm in Washington, Garland became a rising star. He made time for a young college graduate who worked in the copy center, too. Randy Thompson says Garland reviewed one of his papers, photocopied it and rearranged the paragraphs.
RANDY THOMPSON: That was the beginning of, in essence, him becoming a writing coach for me. It was just a extraordinary experience. And became my coach, eventually my mentor and, 30 something years later, a friend.
JOHNSON: Eventually, Garland wrote him a reference for law school and has kept in touch ever since. Thompson says Garland's still a little old-school, still humble, still looking to help.
THOMPSON: The only thing that really has changed about him - and I guess me as well - is the color of our hair (laughter).
PAUL BUTLER: Having a well-respected judge as attorney general will help get the department under the quagmire of partisan politics that many people think it devolved to under President Trump and Attorney General Barr.
JOHNSON: That's Georgetown law professor Paul Butler. He says the DOJ has been reeling from political scandals and racing to confront the threat from homegrown extremists. Merrick Garland has faced both before. After clerking on the Supreme Court, Garland took a job as an adviser in President Jimmy Carter's Justice Department. In those years after Watergate, DOJ struggled to separate partisan influence from law enforcement and establish new boundaries for the FBI.
Garland also played a bit part in some of the biggest investigations of that era, from political corruption to national security, that Garland says later turned into hit movies.
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GARLAND: "American Hustle" about the Abscam case. "Argo" about the exfiltration of hostages in Iran. And most important, the "Miracle On Ice" (ph).
GARLAND: Which was about the Lake Placid Olympics, where I did work on the security for the Olympics.
JOHNSON: By the 1990s, Garland was prosecuting a violent gang that terrorized people in a public housing project and helping build a case against DC's Mayor Marion Barry on drug charges. Back inside Justice Department headquarters, Garland became the man to see for the hardest problems.
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UNIDENTIFIED REPORTER: A car bomb exploded outside of a large federal building in downtown Oklahoma City.
JOHNSON: Garland would soon travel to the site of the most deadly domestic terror plot in American history. One hundred and sixty-eight people died in that bombing in Oklahoma. Former Deputy Attorney General Jamie Gorelick remembers watching that day with Garland by her side.
JAMIE GORELICK: He basically said, while watching children being pulled out of the wreckage, that he had to go. He really wanted to go. We both had young children at the time, and what we saw on those screens was so affecting.
JOHNSON: Garland oversaw the search warrants, protected the chain of evidence and insisted that reporters have access to court proceedings.
GORELICK: We wanted somebody who could make sure that the investigation was done by the book and that any indictment was bulletproof.
JOHNSON: Prosecutors later convicted Timothy McVeigh and Terry Nichols for their role in that bombing. Former prosecutor Beth Wilkinson says Garland played an important role in other confrontations with extremists in those years, including a standoff with the heavily armed Montana Freemen.
BETH WILKINSON: One of the examples I can think of is sometimes there were these stand-downs where there would be, you know, arrest warrants for someone or there would be some kind of controversy between people who were challenging the federal government. Merrick's first instinct wasn't to go in and arrest everyone; it was to try, along with the FBI, to see if those disputes could be resolved.
JOHNSON: Wilkinson says the FBI went on to arrest those men later. She credited Garland's quick thinking and cool head that may have prevented a tragic outcome. Just about the only criticism Garland's nomination has drawn is in the area of civil rights.
BUTLER: Garland is a moderate, so I don't see him as the bold and visionary leader on racial justice that some people were hoping for.
JOHNSON: Again, Georgetown law professor Paul Butler.
BUTLER: That he's not an ideologue is both good news and concerning for people who want an attorney general to meet this moment of national reckoning inspired by the movement for Black lives and the killing of George Floyd.
JOHNSON: Butler says he thinks Garland will take his cues on racial justice from the White House. Longtime civil rights advocate Wade Henderson says Garland is up to the task, but Henderson says it's a big one.
WADE HENDERSON: The next attorney general, for example, has to do everything in his or her power to fight for voting rights, police reform, criminal justice reform and LGBTQ equality.
JOHNSON: For the past 23 years, Garland has been a federal appeals court judge. In that role, he doesn't have much of a chance to share his personal views. Carolyn Lerner, the chief mediator at the courthouse, says Garland took an early and important lead to update policies that protect workers from sexual harassment and other misconduct.
CAROLYN LERNER: I think it's very clear that Judge Garland cares a lot about these issues, and he really wants employees to be happy and comfortable in the workplace. And when he was chief judge, he took his responsibility to these employees very seriously.
JOHNSON: She says Garland wants to continue another of his projects at the Justice Department - tutoring sessions with a young public school student. This year, the judge is working with an 11-year-old boy and his twin sister. Their mom is Andrea Tucker.
ANDREA TUCKER: He makes it so interactive for them and so much fun, and they can't get enough of it (laughter).
JOHNSON: It's the kind of public service that Garland has always wanted to do.
Carrie Johnson, NPR News.
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