President Joe Biden’s attorney general, Merrick Garland, promised Thursday in his first remarks as the nation’s top law enforcement official that he and his colleagues will show “that the Department of Justice pursues equal justice and adheres to the rule of law.”
Speaking from the department’s Great Hall, he told its 115,000 employees that there won’t 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 upon one’s race or ethnicity.”
Garland was sworn in Thursday morning as the nation’s 86th attorney general, after the Senate confirmed him Wednesday by a broadly bipartisan vote of 70-30.
In his remarks, Garland repeatedly praised the work and commitment of the department’s career employees. It was a stark contrast to a speech last September by his predecessor, William Barr, who said career lawyers “sometimes acted like a trade association for prosecutors, more than the administrator of a fair system of justice based on clear and sensible rules.”
Barr notably overruled career prosecutors in proposing a lighter sentence for former President Donald Trump’s longtime friend and ex-adviser Roger Stone and in seeking to dismiss charges against former Trump national security adviser Michael Flynn.
Garland, who is 68, said he first applied for a job at the Justice Department when he was 26, and was captivated by the majesty of the place.
“This is a beautiful building built in the midst of the Great Depression,” he said. “But it was the ideal of justice to which it is a monument that was truly awe inspiring.”
Since Biden’s inauguration, the Justice Department has been incrementally rolling back Trump administration initiatives. The government has said it will no longer seek to enforce tighter rules limiting entry for immigrants who might be dependent on public assistance or to deny federal grants to police departments that refuse to tell immigration agents about noncitizens who are soon to be released from jail.
On Thursday, the Supreme Court canceled upcoming arguments over a Trump-endorsed plan to impose work requirements on Medicaid recipients. The Justice Department notified the court that the proposal did fit not the goal of providing health care to lower-income people
Garland faces an immediate challenge in shaping the federal response to the growing threat of violent domestic extremism. Department officials said he will spend some of his first day on the job receiving briefings on the status of the government’s investigation into the Jan. 6 riot at the U.S. Capitol.
Pete Williams is an NBC News correspondent who covers the Justice Department and the Supreme Court, based in Washington.