The Senate voted Wednesday to confirm Merrick Garland as attorney general, handing the reins of the Justice Department to a longtime federal judge who has pledged to depoliticize the agency.
He was confirmed by a vote of 70-30. Among the Republicans who voted in favor were Minority Leader Mitch McConnell of Kentucky, John Cornyn of Texas and Lindsey Graham of South Carolina. Republicans who voted against Garland included three likely 2024 presidential candidates, Josh Hawley of Missouri, Tom Cotton of Arkansas and Ted Cruz of Texas.
"America can breathe a sigh of relief that we're finally going to have someone like Merrick Garland leading the Justice Department, someone with integrity, independence, respect for the rule of law and credibility on both sides of the aisle. He understands that the job of the attorney general is one to protect rule of law, unlike the previous attorneys general under President Trump," Senate Majority Leader Chuck Schumer, D-N.Y., said before the vote.
The bipartisan vote came almost five years to the day since President Barack Obama nominated Garland for the Supreme Court after the death of Justice Antonin Scalia. The Senate, controlled by Republicans and led by McConnell at the time, refused to consider his nomination, and the seat was filled by Neil Gorsuch, who was nominated by President Donald Trump.
McConnell said on the Senate floor ahead of the vote that he was voting to confirm Garland "because of his long reputation as a straight shooter and a legal expert."
Hitting the 70-vote mark was a strong showing. In the past several decades, most attorneys general have been confirmed with votes in the 50s and 60s, with two notable exceptions. Eric Holder, the first African American nominee, was confirmed with 75 votes, and Janet Reno, the first woman to be attorney general, was confirmed by a vote of 98-0.
Garland, 68, has been a judge on the U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals for the District of Columbia since 1997, and he was its chief judge from 2013 to 2020. He is a veteran of the Justice Department, where he supervised domestic terrorism cases, including prosecutions stemming from the bombing of the Oklahoma City federal building in 1995.
At his confirmation hearing last month, Garland said one of his most pressing tasks would be to "supervise the prosecution of white supremacists and others who stormed the Capitol on January 6 — a heinous attack that sought to disrupt a cornerstone of our democracy: the peaceful transfer of power to a newly elected government."
Garland said he would not rule out investigating those who funded, organized, led and aided the attack.
"We begin with the people on the ground, and we work our way up to those who are involved and further involved, and we will pursue these leads wherever they take us," he said.
He stressed that he would protect the Justice Department from political interference from the White House. Federal judges and others frequently accused Trump's last attorney general, William Barr, of putting Trump's interests ahead of the department's.
Some politically charged cases await him, including John Durham's special counsel investigation into the origins of the Trump-Russia inquiry and a tax investigation involving Biden's son Hunter.
Garland said at his confirmation hearing that he had not discussed the Hunter Biden case with the president and that the president had made it "abundantly clear" that decisions about investigations and prosecutions will be left to the Justice Department.
When his nomination was announced in January, Garland said he would strive to make sure that "like cases are treated alike, that there not be one rule for Democrats and another for Republicans, one rule for friends, the other for foes."