Merrick Garland’s moves draw criticism after pledge to depoliticize Justice Department

It hasn’t taken long for Attorney General Merrick Garland to squander a reputation as a straight shooter.

Mr. Garland, who took office vowing to depoliticize the Justice Department, has drawn fire this month for directing federal law enforcement to keep tabs on parents deemed too outspoken in their opinions about local schools.

That followed high-profile lawsuits against Texas’ new law restricting abortion and Georgia’s election changes, which federal officials said were less about cleaning up messy voting and more about keeping minorities from casting ballots.

Behind the scenes, Mr. Garland has overseen an immigration court decapitation, ousting the director and chasing out other senior executives, installing a new director dogged by ethics questions, and issuing rulings making it easier for illegal immigrants to lodge iffy asylum claims. One department official confided that Mr. Garland was “basically weaponizing” the agency.

“It’s crazy politicized,” said the official, speaking on the condition of anonymity.

Mr. Garland will have to answer to Congress on Thursday when he appears for the first time since June.

In previous hearings, lawmakers chided the attorney general for moves that seemed to support former President Donald Trump in cases over presidential powers and secrecy.

Mr. Garland had a long reputation as a legal moderate with his rulings at the U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals for the District of Columbia. In 2010, Sen. Orrin G. Hatch, Utah Republican, dubbed him a “consensus” pick for the Supreme Court.

His bipartisan credentials were strong enough that President Obama nominated him to fill the Supreme Court seat left vacant by the death of Justice Antonin Scalia in 2016. The nomination never gained traction because congressional Republicans insisted that the seat be filled by the winner of that year’s presidential election.

Mr. Garland remained on the D.C. appeals court until Mr. Biden picked him to helm the Justice Department. He pledged to restore “the honor, the integrity, the independence” of a department that made politically charged moves for more than a decade in administrations of both parties.

The Senate confirmed him in March on a 70-30 vote, putting his support in the middle of Mr. Biden’s Cabinet nominees.

Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell, a Kentucky Republican who led the blockade on the Supreme Court nomination, supported Mr. Garland for attorney general. He said Mr. Garland had a “long reputation as a straight shooter and legal expert. His left-of-center perspective has been within the legal mainstream.”

After Mr. Garland issued his school board memo, Mr. McConnell fired off a letter blasting the “ominous rhetoric” and demanded to know what the attorney general considered to be the line between concerned parents and violent extremists.

He said Mr. Garland will have to answer for the memo at this week’s hearing.

The directive asked U.S. attorneys and the FBI to meet with local law enforcement to battle what he called “a disturbing spike in harassment, intimidation and threats of violence against school administrators, board members, teachers and staff.” Mr. Garland cast the meetings as strategy sessions.

The Justice Department said in a news release that the attorney general also would direct federal agents and lawyers to figure out ways to investigate and prosecute protesters and help states make cases when no federal law has been broken. Mr. Garland offered training so school officials would know when they’ve been threatened.

Days before the Oct. 4 announcements, the National School Boards Association wrote a letter to Mr. Biden urging that parents’ disruptions be classified as “equivalent to a form of domestic terrorism and hate crimes.” Conservatives saw Mr. Garland’s announcement as an agreement to the association’s demands.

“He is unleashing the full force of the federal government against parents, potentially treating them as ‘domestic terrorists,’ while providing no evidence of any credible, significant threats,” said Christopher Rufo, one of the nation’s leading opponents of critical race theory. “It’s a blatant tactic to suppress conservatives and criminalize legal dissent. It’s unprecedented and, unless he reverses this decision, will remain a stain on his legacy forever.”

Mr. Garland’s office didn’t respond to a request for comment for this article.

News fact-checkers said critics of the school board memo are misinterpreting the Justice Department’s promises.

While conservatives have been loud in their denunciations, liberal advocates have been relatively quiet about their support. MSNBC legal analyst Joyce Alene did give Mr. Garland a rave review in June when she reported that the attorney general would be scooping ice cream for department employees.

“Did not see this from Bill Barr,” she tweeted in reference to Mr. Trump’s attorney general.

Mr. Garland has won praise from the far left for increasing scrutiny of policing practices, giving a close look at hate crimes and doubling the department’s staff in charge of enforcing voting rights.

Less attention has gone to changes at the executive office of immigration review, the agency that runs the immigration courts. Insiders say they are striking examples of politicization.

Under Mr. Garland, the director of the office was reassigned. One official called the move an unprecedented “political switch-up.”

“You basically let the director die or retire,” the official said.

David Neal, whom Mr. Garland named to replace the ousted director, faced an ethics investigation in 2014 when he was chairman of the board of immigration appeals. The Justice Department’s inspector general said Mr. Neal managed to land summer jobs for his daughter and son. Although the inspector general found insufficient evidence to show Mr. Neal violated the law, he “exercised poor judgment.”

At least three other career senior executives at the executive office of immigration review have been ushered out, as have some immigration judges hired during the Trump administration, department sources said. New hires are coming from the ranks of immigration advocacy groups. Their views are expected to be more in line with the administration’s lenient approach toward illegal immigration.

“President Biden and Attorney General Garland both promised to take politics out of the Department of Justice and to respect career employees. Their actions regarding EOIR have shown the exact opposite,” a second department source said.

Some analysts said Mr. Garland’s top lieutenants explain his embrace of politically charged moves. They include Associate Attorney General Vanita Gupta, the third-ranking official at the Justice Department, and Kristen Clarke, the assistant attorney general for civil rights, who backed efforts to defund police departments.

“If you look, these aren’t middle-of-the-road liberals that are running various divisions but hard-left ideologues,” said Zack Smith, a legal fellow at the conservative Heritage Foundation who tracks Justice Department actions. “And Merrick Garland has issued memos, held press conferences, that show he’s giving not just tacit but explicit support to these moves, which is sadly ironic in light of his pledge to ‘depoliticize’ Justice.”

For conservatives, the most visible manifestation was the Justice Department’s lawsuit filed in June against Georgia over the state’s new voting rules.

Appearing alongside Ms. Gupta and Ms. Clarke, Mr. Garland said he saw racial motives in the law and that minority voters would be punished if Georgia bans unsolicited absentee ballot applications, narrows the window for requesting absentee ballots, bars distribution of food or water to those waiting in polling lines, and tightens rules for voter identification.

Critics of Mr. Garland pointed out that some of those rules were law in other states, including deep-blue New York.

“Do you think Merrick Garland is going to file a lawsuit against the state of New York for that?” Mr. Smith said. “I doubt it.”

Now, Mr. Garland and the Justice Department have swung into action to reverse Texas’ law that bans abortions after a fetal heartbeat is detected. Known as S.B. 8, the law leaves out state actors but permits private individuals or groups to bring lawsuits against abortion providers in certain circumstances.

The Supreme Court and the 5th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals have allowed the law to take effect as legal battles play out.

The Justice Department on Monday asked the high court to block the law.

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