Merrick Garland had been attorney general for less than a week when a gunman killed eight people in the Atlanta area, six of whom were Asian women, sending a wave of terror through the Asian-American community and reigniting a national debate on gun control.
But in a break with his predecessors’ actions, the nation’s top law enforcement officer largely stayed out of public view, working behind the scenes to shape the department’s response.
The move was part of a conscious strategy to steer clear of politics and the limelight, according to interviews with Justice Department officials. Yet it also carries risks as the Justice Department confronts a slew of several highly-charged issues, including prosecutions stemming from the Jan. 6 riot at the Capitol to a wave of bills in state legislatures that President Joe Biden’s supporters say are meant to disenfranchise minorities.
“The clock is ticking,” said Nancy Abudu, deputy legal director for voting rights at the Southern Poverty Law Center. “We simply can’t wait too much longer for DOJ to be more vocal, more present, publicly in terms of their commitment to join us in combating these laws.”
Garland is trying to reverse a trend over the last several years in which the department — under the leadership of Jeff Sessions and then William Barr — was at the center of public drama and often criticized for being politicized, according to the Justice officials, who asked not to be identified publicly discussing his approach nearly one month after being confirmed. He also came into office during the global coronavirus pandemic that limits the ability to hold public events.
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“What it appears he is doing is he is being very deliberate and measured and I think that’s entirely appropriate,” said Larry Thompson, who served as deputy attorney general under President George W. Bush. “I don’t think you should go looking for controversy.”
But political fights are unavoidable.
The Southern Poverty Law center joined the American Civil Liberties Union and other groups in filing a federal lawsuit last week against a new voting law in Georgia that they say infringes on the constitutional rights of voters and minorities in particular.
Abudu and other advocates working on some of the hot-button issues say they’re encouraged by Garland’s leadership of the department so far and understand he doesn’t have his full team in place, as the Senate has yet to confirm his two top deputies. But they also say they expect the Justice Department to become a proactive ally, adding that the time Garland has to get up to speed on key issues and to lay out his agenda is winding down.
Groups working on gun violence prevention, for instance, say they see a significant opportunity with Garland — a former federal judge — in place, perhaps by helping to craft executive actions that Biden will implement.
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“This is unchartered territory for our movement,” said Christian Heyne, vice president of policy for Brady, a gun control advocacy group. “We haven’t had a sympathetic incoming DOJ to our issue in quite some time.”
The groups were encouraged that Biden included more than $5 billion to support community-based violence prevention programs in his sweeping jobs and infrastructure plan, including for programs overseen by the Justice Department.
“There are so many issue around guns and gun violence prevention that should be addressed by the DOJ,” said Po Murray, chairwoman of the Newtown Action Alliance and Newtown Action Alliance Foundation, which were founded after the Sandy Hook Elementary School shooting in 2012. “There is no better time than now with a majority in the House and a slight majority in the Senate to get the job done.”
Garland will also be pressed to publicly address other controversial matters — issues that will be seen as inextricably linked to politics. For starters, his Justice Department now has more than 300 cases so far against suspected participants in the Capitol riot, which was led by a mob of supporters of then-President Donald Trump.
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At a time when technology giants are under increasing scrutiny, the attorney general will also have to decide whether to continue the department’s lawsuit against Alphabet Inc.’s Google, what to do about an inquiry into the origins of the FBI’s Russia probe and whether to change the department’s approach to Chinese espionage and hacking.
John Yang, president and executive director of Asian Americans Advancing Justice, said Garland should suspend the practice of bringing charges against Chinese researchers working at American universities, which is being done under the so-called China Initiative.
U.S. authorities say they’re going after potential Chinese spies, but the actual charges often end up much less serious and contribute to bias against Asian Americans, said Yang, who participated in a March 17 call with Garland.
“The manner in which this is being handled has targeted the Asian-American community in a way that does not seem appropriate,” Yang said.
In his confirmation hearing, Garland, 68, emphasized that one of his chief goals was to help restore the Justice Department’s credibility by signaling its independence from the White House. That helps explains his reluctance to enter the spotlight, the officials say.
Reaction to Shootings
Yet at this point in their tenures, both Sessions and Barr had already held their first news conferences as well as other public events. Garland has yet to do so. The attorney general’s supporters say that his cautious public persona doesn’t mean he isn’t acting decisively.
Within 24 hours of the Atlanta-area shootings, Garland held a conference call with members of the Asian-American community in which he said the Justice Department would use all available tools to stop anti-Asian hate.
In the following days, he issued a video recording condemning hate crimes and, on March 30, ordered the department to conduct an expedited review to determine how best to use its resources to fight hate-based violence.
Garland also issued a video recording on the need for transparency and accountability within the department, especially through the Freedom of Information Act.
Garland is constrained, however, in what he and other department officials can do publicly. They have to protect investigations and sensitive sources and methods, said Thompson, the former deputy attorney general.
Garland also has to be careful to not get ahead of the White House on policy matters, said Thompson, who supported Garland’s nomination.
“More than anything, I think the department really has to be fair and impartial in its investigations and give the appearance of fairness and impartiality,” Thompson said. “On the larger policy issues, he needs time to make certain that he’s in sync with what the president is doing and what the president wants.”