Garland: Justice Department must be politically independent

WASHINGTON (AP) - Merrick Garland, President Joe Biden's nominee for attorney general, vowed on Monday to prioritize civil rights, combat extremist attacks and ensure the Justice Department remains politically independent.

A federal appeals court judge who was snubbed by Republicans for a seat on the Supreme Court in 2016, Garland appeared Monday before the Senate Judiciary Committee and is widely expected to sail through his confirmation process with bipartisan support.

"The attorney general represents the public interest, particularly and specifically as defined by the Constitution and the statutes of the United States," Garland said. "I do not plan to be interfered with by anyone."

Garland will inherit a Justice Department that endured a tumultuous era under Trump - rife with political drama and controversial decisions - and that faced abundant criticism from Democrats over what they saw as the politicizing of the nation's top law enforcement agencies.

Early in the hearing, Garland faced questioning about his plans to handle specific investigations and politically sensitive cases, like the federal tax investigation involving Biden's son Hunter Biden, and the special counsel's inquiry started by William Barr, while he was attorney general, into the origins of the Trump-Russia investigation, which also remains open.

Garland said he had not spoken with Biden about the investigation into his son. He said he had agreed to the nomination as attorney general because the president had vowed that "decisions about investigations and prosecutions will be left to the Justice Department."

Biden's choice of Garland reflects the president's goal of restoring the department's reputation as an independent body.

During his four years as president, Donald Trump insisted that the attorney general must be loyal to him personally, a position that battered the department's reputation.

In his prepared remarks, Garland focused on prioritizing policing and civil rights to combat racial discrimination - he says America doesn't "yet have equal justice" - as well as confronting the rise in extremist violence and domestic terror threats and restoring the department's political independence after years of controversial decisions and turmoil.

Garland is an experienced judge who held senior positions at the Justice Department decades ago, including as a supervisor in the prosecution of the 1995 Oklahoma City bombing. But he is set to return to a department that is radically different from the one he left. His experience prosecuting domestic terrorism cases could prove exceptionally handy.

His nomination has gained public support on both sides of the political aisle, from more than 150 former Justice Department officials along with 61 former federal judges.

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