Garland emphasizes national security, civil rights in budget hearing
Attorney General Merrick Garland on Tuesday was grilled by lawmakers on national security, voting rights and the border during his first appearance on Capitol Hill since being sworn in as the nation’s top law enforcement officer.
Garland appeared before a House Appropriations subcommittee to review the Biden administration’s “skinny budget” for the Department of Justice (DOJ), tasking the agency with reforms in policing, voting rights and hate crimes. Biden’s budget proposal, which was unveiled last month, would provide $35.2 billion for the department, which amounts to about a 5 percent increase over its current budget.
“Our budget supports my commitment to protecting our national security, including addressing both international and domestic terrorism, while respecting civil liberties,” Garland said at the top of the hearing.
Garland, who earlier in his career had helped prosecute domestic terrorism cases like the Oklahoma City bombing, said that since he became attorney general, he has been most worried about foreign and domestic terrorism.
“Both of those keep me up at night,” he said. “Virtually every morning I get a briefing from the FBI in one or the other or both of those areas. Since the last time I was in the Justice Department, when both were concerns as well, the lethality of weapons available to these kinds of terrorists both foreign and domestic has increased. The consequences of the internet and encryption means that they can send information and make plans more swiftly and in greater secrecy than could have been done before.”
He also called DOJ’s civil rights work “critical to protecting the American dream,” pledging to protect voting rights and prosecute hate crimes.
Some Democrats expressed concern about the growing number of voting restrictions being enacted at the state level across the country.
Rep. Matt Cartwright (D-Pa.), the subcommittee’s chairman, asked whether the Supreme Court’s 2013 decision in Shelby County v. Holder, which eviscerated the federal government’s authority to oversee state voting laws, would strain the DOJ’s capacity to combat any new voting laws that might be unconstitutional.
“If we have any hope of combating these changes that are being enacted vigorously in the United States, how much money is it going to cost the American taxpayer as a result of that Shelby County decision?” Cartwright asked.
“The right to vote is absolutely fundamental,” Garland responded. “It’s the cornerstone of our democracy. The Justice Department is pledged as part of its original purpose in its establishment during Reconstruction to protect voting rights.
“We do now have to bring each case individually, and you are correct, that is a very large investment of resources and that’s part of the reason why we’re asking for the 15.8 percent increase in the budget for the civil rights division.”
The 1965 Voting Rights Act enacted a regime that required certain jurisdictions with a history of discriminating against minority voters to clear new voting rules with the federal government. The Supreme Court’s 2013 decision effectively ended that system and now the Justice Department has to sue state and local governments in order to block unconstitutional voting restrictions.
Asked whether he would oppose voter ID laws as part of the DOJ’s civil rights enforcement efforts, Garland said federal prosecutors would be focusing on the impact that certain restrictions have on certain communities.
“The question on voter ID is what kind of disparate impact it has on voters of different races, colors and language groups, and whether it violates the Constitution by having a disparate impact on people’s ability to vote,” he said. “The Supreme Court has held that voter ID as a concept is constitutional. And the issue is what, in any individual cases, the record shows about whether it deprives certain groups protected by the 14th Amendment right to vote.”
“It’s not a question of whether voter ID is sensible or not sensible. It’s a question of how it impacts and what the cost of that impact is,” he added.
Garland also faced numerous questions from Republican lawmakers about migration toward the southern border, noting that Biden’s budget requests the funding to add 100 new immigration court judges.
“I would argue that before we grant a significant increase in funding for immigration judges, we need to see some recognition by this administration that it is first indeed a crisis and secondly, that they are taking steps to address this crisis by restoring some order to the border and some structure to enforcing our border,” said Rep. Ben Cline (R-Va.).
The immigration court backlog, which now stands at some 1.3 million cases, is an issue that well predates the Biden administration.
But Garland provided few details about how the administration determined it should add 100 new judges — a figure that some experts have argued is too low to make a meaningful dent in the backlog.
“This will be extremely helpful for us at this point, and this is the amount that we need right now,” he said.
Garland also fielded questions about the 2017 shooting of Republican lawmakers as they practiced for a congressional baseball game. Some on the field have recently rejected the FBI’s determination that the shooter sought “suicide by cop,” asking the bureau to review the investigation.
“I promise I will raise this issue with the FBI,” Garland said, “I have not yet had a chance to speak with the FBI about it but we, the department, will speak with the FBI about this and find out what the situation was.”
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