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Merrick Garland, Biden’s attorney general pick, finally gets his Senate confirmation hearing

Senate Republicans blocked the Lincolnwood-raised Garland from even getting a hearing when ex-President Obama nominated him for the Supreme Court in 2016.

Niles West principal Dr. Jason Ness, right, presents a Niles West hockey jersey to Chief Judge Merrick Garland, a Niles West alumnus, (class of 1970) after speaking at Niles West’s 2016 commencement ceremony Sunday, May 29, 2016, in Skokie, Illinois. | Tim Boyle/For the Sun-Times
Niles West principal Dr. Jason Ness, right, presents a Niles West hockey jersey to Chief Judge Merrick Garland, a Niles West alumnus, (class of 1970) after speaking at Niles West’s 2016 commencement ceremony Sunday, May 29, 2016, in Skokie, Illinois.
Tim Boyle/Sun-Times Media file photo

WASHINGTON — When Merrick Garland delivered the commencement address to the Niles West High School Class of 2016, he told graduates, “I am here to tell you that you cannot anticipate the twists and turns that life will take, nor should you.”

Garland, the class of 1970 valedictorian, added, “Life would be pretty boring if you could plan it all out on graduation day.”

That has certainly turned out to be true for the Lincolnwood-raised federal appeals judge, based in Washington, D.C.

Nominated to be attorney general by President Joe Biden, his U.S. Senate Judiciary Committee confirmation hearing is Monday.

Nearly five years ago, on March 16, 2016, then-President Barack Obama, with 11 months left in his term, tapped Garland for the U.S. Supreme Court. When Garland returned to his high school in Skokie on May 29, 2016, he was in the midst of what turned out to be a losing battle for the seat.

The fight to replace the late Supreme Court Justice Antonin Scalia was not about Garland, a respected jurist with a centrist reputation.

Then-Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell and his GOP-controlled Senate blocked Garland’s nomination to keep the spot open in case a Republican was elected president that November.

McConnell’s crass ploy worked.

Then-President Donald Trump came to office with a Supreme Court vacancy to fill.

That was the twist.

Now, the turn.

Five years later, Garland is finally getting his hearing — although for a different job.

If confirmed, Garland will be the next attorney general.

The Senate is now in Democratic hands. Garland’s Senate Judiciary Committee hearing is also the debut of U.S. Sen. Dick Durbin, D-Ill., wielding the gavel for the first time as the new panel chair. Durbin will give an opening statement as the chair. Garland, a Bethesda, Maryland, resident, will be introduced by Sens. Tammy Duckworth, D-Ill., and Chris Van Hollen, D-Md.

The prepared text of Garland’s opening statement released over the weekend shows the focus of his remarks will be in three areas:

  • Restoring the independence of the U.S. Department of Justice following the partisanship of the Trump years, where Trump tried to treat the attorney general as his personal lawyer.

Garland will pointedly say, according to the text, the attorney general is the lawyer “for the people of the United States” and “not for any individual.”

  • Emphasizing civil rights.

“That mission remains urgent” because minorities face discrimination and “bear the brunt of the harm caused by the pandemic, pollution and climate change.”

  • Fighting domestic terrorism.

“Battling extremist attacks on our democratic institutions” is “central” to the Justice Department’s mission.

The grandson of Jewish immigrants fleeing anti-Semitism in Europe, most of Garland’s career has been as a judge, a prosecutor or a top Justice Department official.

He was born in Chicago’s South Shore neighborhood, near 79th Street and Jeffrey Boulevard, with his family moving to Lincolnwood when he was a youngster. His late father, Cyril, ran an advertising company from the family home. His late mother, Shirley, was director of volunteer services at the Council for Jewish Elderly.

Garland is a product of the Lincolnwood School District 74 schools, attending Todd, Rutledge and Lincoln before Niles West. Garland earned undergraduate and law degrees from Harvard. When District 74 celebrated its 75th anniversary on Aug. 31, 2018, Garland came home to keynote the event.

One of Garland’s defining assignments was between 1995 and 1997, when he led the investigation and prosecution of Timothy McVeigh, the domestic terrorist convicted in the bombing of the federal building in Oklahoma City.

Biden nominated Garland the day after the Jan. 6 attacks on the Capitol by pro-Trump rioters aiming to prevent Congress from certifying Biden’s election.

“If confirmed, I will supervise the prosecution of white supremacists and others who stormed the Capitol on Jan. 6 — a heinous attack that served to disrupt a cornerstone of our democracy,” he will say.

There seems no serious effort by Republicans to block Garland’s confirmation.

Still, there may be fireworks Monday.

The panel includes ardent Trump allies U.S. Sens. Lindsey Graham of South Carolina; Josh Hawley of Missouri, the only senator voting against all of Biden’s Cabinet picks; and Ted Cruz of Texas, wounded in the wake of his trip to a Mexican resort while Texans were without power and water.

Republicans are expected to press Garland on pursuing probes of Biden’s son Hunter; Trump; and New York Gov. Andrew Cuomo, under fire for under-reporting COVID-19 nursing home deaths.

Ahead of the Monday confirmation hearing, a group of former U.S. attorneys and Justice Department officials — both Republicans and Democrats — and retired federal judges released letters endorsing Garland’s confirmation.

Chicago-based top federal prosecutors urging Garland’s confirmation in the letters are: Zach Fardon; Patrick Fitzgerald; Sam Skinner; and John Schmidt, a former associate attorney general.

The retired Chicago-based federal judges signing the judicial letter for Garland are: Ruben Castillo; James Holderman; Wayne Andersen; Ann Claire Williams; and David Coar.