Merrick Garland is now Attorney General

Will Merrick Garland Fight for Criminal Justice and Marijuana Reform?

Merrick Garland was down for the past five years, but he was never out. Today the Senate confirmed the respected judge as the nation’s 86th attorney general by a vote of 70 to 30. Now Democrats are eager to see him get to work on everything from criminal justice and marijuana reform to simply restoring trust in the beleaguered Justice Department.

This new, prominent role for Garland is being cheered by Democrats. They’ve been smarting since Senate Republicans refused to even hold hearings after former President Obama nominated him to the Supreme Court. But his role goes beyond the political one thrust upon him in 2016, and a top priority for Democrats is quite mundane — but also a sea change compared to the Trump-era.

“I think there’s going to be a coherent policy from this administration. An attorney general who is respected and respects the rule of law, that’s a dramatic change,” Sen. Dick Durbin (D-Ill.) told The News Station while waiting for a tram under the Capitol.  

The attorney general has priorities far more important than going after marijuana possession cases

Sen. Richard Blumenthal

The Senate majority whip, or the number two most powerful Democrat in the chamber, admitted Garland was light on some of his responses in his confirmation hearings on topics like drug policy. Garland has a lot to catch up on at the sprawling Department of Justice he used to work for but now heads, but Durbin is fine with that.

“Well, he does,” Durbin said. “He’s been a judge for 20 years. He’s been out of the department, and I want to give him a chance to get his feet on the ground.”

And unlike former President Trump’s first attorney general, Jeff Sessions, Democrats aren’t expecting any attempts from Garland’s Department of Justice to interfere with the more than 15 states and the District of Columbia where marijuana is as locally legal as buying a six pack, even if it’s still federally prohibited.

“The attorney general has priorities far more important than going after marijuana possession cases,” Sen. Richard Blumenthal (D-Conn.) told The News Station at the Capitol.

He believes Garland and the Biden administration get it when it comes to federalism — or letting states take the lead — and marijuana.

“The federal government should allow states to make decisions about marijuana criminal laws. I think the federal government ought to get out of the way of states responding to the felt needs and opinions of their people on marijuana. The federal criminal prohibitions should be eased or eliminated to enable states to adopt their own laws,” Blumenthal said, before he refused to give his personal opinion on marijuana legalization efforts in his state. “I’m not going to comment.”

You’ll find some Republicans willing to do things on criminal justice reform

Sen. Lindsey Graham

The former state attorney general said one of the biggest changes he’s been longing to witness is the removal of partisan politics from the Justice Department by Garland and his team.

“But as important as any prosecution is, his reverence and respect for the career professionals who do the investigation and the prosecuting and will help you make decisions that really serve the interests of justice,” Blumenthal said.  

It’s not just Democrats. Garland was confirmed with the support of 30 Republican senators, including now Minority Leader Mitch McConnell and the former chair of the Judiciary Committee, Lindsey Graham of South Carolina.

“I think he’s well qualified,” Graham told The News Station after voting for Garland.

For his part, Graham helped usher the First Step Act through the Senate and into law under Trump. That bill gave judges more discretion over mandatory minimum sentencing requirements and also did things like relaxing the racial sentencing disparity between crack and powder cocaine.

Senators from both parties were disappointed efforts to expand on the law went nowhere in the last administration, but Graham said he doesn’t have many expectations about Garland when it comes to criminal justice issues.

“We’ll just see,” Graham said, before listing some areas he hopes the two parties can come together and continue their bipartisan sentencing reform efforts.

“I’m for trying to create some kind of pilot parole program for the federal system — there’s no [federal] parole,” Graham said. “So you’ll find some Republicans willing to do things on criminal justice reform.”

Graham said he’s already talked to Sen. Cory Booker (D-NJ) about ways to overhaul or improve the nation’s prison system while building on bipartisan efforts to relax harsh sentencing laws.

That’s why Graham is hoping Garland comes to the table, as opposed to going around Congress.

“I would hope not,” Graham told The News Station. “Give us a chance to see what we can do.”    

Matt Laslo is Managing Editor of The News Station. To learn more about the veteran political reporter and professor -- or to read more of his work -- his bio page is here.

Matt Laslo is Managing Editor of The News Station. To learn more about the veteran political reporter and professor -- or to read more of his work -- his bio page is here.

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