Judge Merrick B. Garland appeared before the Senate Judiciary Committee on Monday to begin his confirmation process to become the attorney general.
While Judge Garland is expected to garner broad bipartisan support to run the Justice Department, he is facing questions from Democrats and Republicans about how he will handle myriad politically charged matters that the department now faces: a federal tax fraud investigation into President Biden’s son, a special counsel’s inquiry into the origins of the Russia investigation, and the investigation into the Jan. 6 attack on the Capitol that has begun to edge closer to former President Donald J. Trump’s inner circle.
He will also need to reinvigorate the department’s civil rights division as America undergoes a painful and destabilizing reckoning with systemic racism, the likes of which the nation has not seen in more than half a century. The Trump administration worked to curb civil rights protections for transgender people and minorities. It also barred policies intended to combat systemic racism, sexism, homophobia and other implicit biases, which Mr. Trump said did not exist.
In his opening statement before the committee, Judge Garland, 68, vowed to tackle systemic inequality and to combat the resurgent domestic terrorist threat that was stunningly evident on Jan. 6 during the Capitol siege.
He also told the committee that he will not let politics influence the department, which has undertaken a criminal inquiry into Mr. Biden’s son, Hunter, and is looking into whether Obama-era officials erred in their decision to investigate Mr. Trump’s campaign in 2016.
“The attorney general represents the public interest,” he said. “I do not plan to be interfered with by anyone.”
But Judge Garland will likely also asked whether his Justice Department will open new investigations into Mr. Trump, his former administration officials and his inner circle. Some of those officials have been accused by government watchdogs of improper behavior and lying to investigators. It is unclear whether Mr. Trump or his associates will face scrutiny for any connections to the Capitol attack. Mr. Trump was acquitted of inciting insurrection by the Senate in his impeachment trial.
Republicans may try to push Judge Garland to commit to politically charged investigations into Democrats, including Gov. Andrew M. Cuomo of New York, who misrepresented the number of coronavirus-related deaths in nursing homes, or to appoint a special counsel to investigate Mr. Biden’s son. The Justice Department has asked David C. Weiss, the Trump-appointed U.S. attorney in Delaware, to continue to oversee the investigation into Hunter Biden.
Last month Judge Garland said he would ensure “that there not be one rule for Democrats and another for Republicans, one rule for friends, the other for foes.”
After clerking for Justice William J. Brennan Jr., Judge Garland took a job at the Justice Department in 1989, as a federal prosecutor for the U.S. attorney’s office in Washington under President George H.W. Bush, where he prosecuted public corruption, drug trafficking and fraud cases.
He was chosen by Jamie Gorelick, who was deputy attorney general under President Bill Clinton, to serve as her top deputy; in that role, he oversaw the investigation into the Oklahoma City bombing case and other major domestic terrorism cases. He was confirmed to the U.S. Court of Appeals for the District of Columbia Circuit in 1997 with overwhelming bipartisan support.
Judge Garland is best known for being collateral damage in a political power play by Senator Mitch McConnell, Republican of Kentucky and then the majority leader, who delayed his Supreme Court confirmation hearing for eight months so that a Republican president could fill the seat left empty by the death of Justice Antonin Scalia in 2016.
Civil rights advocates, police unions, Democrats and Republicans have voiced support for Judge Garland’s nomination. A bipartisan group of more than 150 former Justice Department officials, including Democrats such as Eric H. Holder Jr. and Loretta Lynch, and Republicans like Alberto Gonzales, Michael B. Mukasey and Ken Starr, the independent counsel in the Whitewater investigation, signed a letter supporting him as well.
Judge Garland’s confirmation team has methodically released batches of letters of support in the days leading up to the hearing. The first set of letters sought to demonstrate that he had broad support from both parties and from Justice Department alumni. The second was meant to show that both progressives and…