WASHINGTON DC – Merrick Garland, the attorney general of the US, has given two memorable speeches this year.
The second of the two was delivered last week, following the FBI search of the former president Donald Trump’s residence, Mar-a-Lago. The FBI was apparently searching for classified documents – reports suggested that documents related to nuclear weapons may have been among them.
“Since I became attorney general, I have made clear that the Department of Justice will speak through its court filings and its work,” Garland said in the second speech. He went on to say that he had personally made the decision to seek a search warrant, adding, “the department does not take such a decision lightly”. He also said that, since the search, the “integrity” of the FBI and the Department of Justice had been “unfairly attacked”.
“The men and women of the FBI and the justice department are dedicated, patriotic public servants,” Garland countered. He said he was honoured to work with them.
It was a short, serious speech, over in a matter of minutes.
The first memorable speech was longer. In May, Garland delivered an address to Harvard University’s 2020 and 2021 graduates (Garland himself attended Harvard at undergraduate level and for law school). He wanted to make his speech about public service, he said. About what we owe each other.
He told the students that, in his life, he tried to repay a debt he feels he owes the country. “Before World War I, this country gave my family a refuge from religious persecution that allowed them to survive the Holocaust.” He looked for a moment as though he might break down into tears, and he did get choked up explaining that, of his grandmother and her four siblings, three made it to the US from what is now Belarus; one was turned back at Ellis Island; and the fifth did not try to emigrate. “The two who stayed behind died in the Holocaust. So for me, public service is a way to repay the debt my family owes to this country for our very lives.”
Garland’s second speech was the first turned from words into deeds.
Merrick Garland was born in 1952 in the Chicago area. He was valedictorian of his high school and won a scholarship to Harvard for his undergraduate education. He paid his way through law school by working as a tutor, shoe salesman and by selling his comic book collection.
After law school, he clerked for a judge on the second circuit (which has appellate jurisdiction over certain states), and then with the Supreme Court justice, William Brennan. He joined a law firm, became a partner, and then went back to public service, becoming a prosecutor in the George HW Bush administration. In 1993, he joined Bill Clinton’s justice department. Two years later, anti-government white supremacists bombed an office building in Oklahoma, an act of terrorism that killed 168 people. Garland oversaw the investigation and the prosecution of the main perpetrator, Timothy McVeigh. McVeigh was convicted and in 2001 was executed.
Then, in the mid-1990s, he was nominated to the US Court of Appeals for the District of Columbia. In fact, he was nominated twice, before and after the 1996 presidential election; in the first case, the Senate did not schedule a confirmation vote. He began working as a judge there in 1997. He would not leave for almost 25 years.
In 2016, when Supreme Court Justice Antonin Scalia died, President Barack Obama nominated Garland to take his seat. Garland’s “fundamental temperament”, Obama said, was “his insistence that all views deserve a respectful hearing”. He hailed Garland as both a “brilliant legal mind” and a man with a “dedication to protecting the basic rights of every American”.
The Senate, then controlled by Republicans, didn’t vote for Garland. They never even gave him a hearing. The fairer thing to do, they insisted, would be to wait until after that year’s presidential election. When Trump won the White House and Republicans kept the Senate, they put three justices on the court – which are lifetime appointments. Four years after Garland didn’t get his hearing, Trump and Senate Republicans’ third pick, Amy Coney Barrett, was rushed through days before the 2020 election.
Garland continued to work as a circuit judge, where perhaps he might have stayed for many more years had President Joe Biden not selected him to be the attorney general.
The news that Biden was planning to choose Garland broke on 6 January 2021, just hours before an angry mob stormed the Capitol to try to prevent the certification of Trump’s defeat in 2020. Biden formally announced Garland’s nomination the next day.
“Life does not always turn out the way you expect,” Garland told the Harvard graduates in May. He jabbed his finger into his own chest. “Trust me on that.”
Garland’s Department of Justice is now overseeing at least two investigations into the former president: one into Trump’s role in the 6 January riot, and one into Trump’s apparent mishandling of classified documents.
In some corners, Garland is criticised for moving too slowly and cautiously. The fate of the republic hangs in the balance, so what’s taking him so long? Even the national security adviser Jake Sullivan was caught on a hot mic apparently saying that his wife, who works for the justice department and for Garland, is frustrated at the slow, cautious pace of things.
In other, far more noxious corners, Garland is considered an agent sent to harm Trump and the country itself. Some have smeared him on Twitter by referring to him not as “Garland”, but “Garfinkel”, the name his family cast aside when they arrived to America from the Russian empire to escape anti-Semitism; whether those using it were aware of the irony is unclear.
It is frustrating to watch these investigations and not know where they lead. It is maddening to listen to the conspiracies and the smears. And it can seem, at times, like all there is at the bottom of these investigations is malfeasance and hatred and nothing more.
But, perhaps, in Garland’s world-view, there is something more important: you try to serve the public when and where you can. You take accountability where you need to. And you get back to work.
[See also: Liz Cheney lost her US primary: So what?]