Joe Biden taps Lincolnwood-raised Merrick Garland for attorney general

Biden picked Garland, a Niles West grad, to run the Justice Department. President Obama nominated Garland to the Supreme Court; Senate Republicans refused to fill the seat.

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President-Elect Biden Announces His Key Justice Department Nominees

President-elect Joe Biden (R) and Vice President-elect Kamala Harris look on as federal judge Merrick Garland delivers remarks after being nominated to be U.S. attorney general at The Queen theater Thursday, Jan. 7, 2021, in Wilmington, Delaware.

Chip Somodevilla/Getty Images

WASHINGTON — Merrick Garland, the Lincolnwood-raised federal appeals judge Senate Republicans blocked from becoming a Barack Obama Supreme Court justice, was picked by Joe Biden on Thursday to be the next attorney general.

President-elect Biden rolled out Garland and three other top Justice Department nominees promising a return to normalcy after years of President Donald Trump pressuring top DOJ officials to act as if they were his personal lawyers.

Once Trump is out of office, “We need to restore the honor, the integrity, the independence” of the Justice Department “that has been so badly damaged,” Biden said.

And toward that end, Biden told his Justice team, “You won’t work for me. You are not the president or the vice president’s lawyer. Your loyalty is not to me. It is to the law, the Constitution, the people of this nation, to guarantee justice.”

In nominating Garland, the valedictorian of his 1970 Niles West High School class, Biden praised him as “a man of impeccable integrity.”

A former federal prosecutor, Garland, 68, sits on the U.S. Court of Appeals for the District of Columbia circuit, and until Biden’s election it seemed that’s where his career would end.

On Feb. 13, 2016, Justice Antonin Scalia died, and within hours Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell, R-Ky., told then-President Obama not to bother sending the Senate a nominee — though Obama still had 11 months left on his second term. The maneuver, during the presidential primaries, was intended to keep the seat open in case the 2016 election put a Republican in the White House.

Obama tapped Garland in a splashy Rose Garden ceremony on March 16, 2016, where Obama noted he was born “in my hometown of Chicago.” For his part, Garland, who is Jewish, talked about his roots: “My grandparents left the pale of settlement at the border of Western Russia and Eastern Europe in the early 1900s, fleeing anti-Semitism and hoping to make a better life for their children in America. They settled in the Midwest, eventually making their way to Chicago.”

“There, my father, who ran the smallest of small businesses from a room in our basement, took me with him as he made the rounds to his customers, always impressing upon me the importance of hard work and fair dealing. There, my mother headed the local PTA and school board and directed a volunteer services agency, all the while instilling in my sisters and me the understanding that service to the community is a responsibility above all others.”

McConnell threw a blockade around Garland’s nomination. Garland never even got a hearing. The hardball obstructionist tactic worked. Garland remained on the appeals court. Trump became president with an empty Supreme Court seat to fill, which he did with Justice Neil Gorsuch.

Biden’s Thursday unveiling was a somber event, coming a day after a Trump-instigated mob stormed the Capitol as House and Senate members were counting the Electoral College votes making official Biden’s presidential win. The riot left at least five dead according to CNN and sparked talk of another impeachment or invoking the 25th Amendment to oust Trump before Biden’s Jan. 20 inauguration.

Said Garland, “As everyone who watched yesterday’s events in Washington now understands — if they did not understand before — the Rule of Law is not just some lawyer’s turn of phrase. It is the very foundation of our democracy.

“The essence of the Rule of Law is that like cases are treated alike: that there not be one rule for Democrats and another for Republicans, one rule for friends and another for foes; one rule for the powerful and another for the powerless; one rule for the rich and another for the poor — or different rules depending on one’s race or ethnicity.” 

Merrick Brian Garland was born in Chicago’s South Shore neighborhood — near 79th Street and Jeffrey Boulevard. His family moved to Lincolnwood when he was a youth and he attended Lincolnwood School District 74 elementary and middle schools before high school at Niles West, in Skokie.

From there he vaulted to Harvard, where he picked up his undergraduate and law degrees in 1974 and 1977.

In the summer of 1974, Garland worked on the congressional campaign of Abner Mikva for a north suburban district seat.

The relationship starting in a campaign office at 4016b Church St. in Skokie endured. President Bill Clinton, on Sept. 6, 1995, nominated Garland to the appeals court seat Mikva vacated.

Sanford Horwitt, author of “Conversations with Abner Mikva,” said Mikva “was a very important mentor for Merrick. … Throughout Merrick’s career he turned to Mikva for wise counsel. … He valued Mikva’s sage political insights and intellect.”

At Harvard, he became close friends with Jamie Gorelick, who was Garland’s boss when they both worked at the Justice Department and she was deputy attorney general.

I asked her how Garland handled the disappointment of McConnell blocking his Supreme Court appointment.

“In a situation in which other people might have been really thrown for a loop, he was not,” Gorelick said. “Second, he liked his job as chief judge of the D.C. circuit … so he threw himself into that.”

Garland’s chief judge term ended last year. “And at that point he thought long and hard whether to take senior status, which of course he would not do while Trump was in office,” she said.

Gorelick said she and Garland started to discuss the possibility of becoming attorney general under a Biden presidency. It was “something that was really attractive to him because he saw how devastated the career people had been during the Trump tenure.”

The tables are turned.

As soon as the newly elected Georgia senators are seated, the Democrats will control the Senate. McConnell will become the minority leader. Biden, not Trump, will nominate Garland’s replacement on the appeals court. And Garland will be on the road to confirmation.

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