WASHINGTON – Today, U.S. Senator Chris Coons (D-Del.), a member of the Senate Judiciary Committee, questioned President Biden’s nominee for attorney general, Judge Merrick Garland.
Senator Coons, co-chair of the Senate Law Enforcement Caucus, emphasized the importance of “protecting our citizens from gun violence, but also developing an environment where law enforcement is more transparent and accountable.” He used Delaware as an example of a state seeking law enforcement reform to ensure community trust, and asked Judge Garland about his views on body-worn cameras as a measure to promote trust between communities and law enforcement. Judge Garland stated that body-worn cameras are an “important tool for accountability.”
Regarding the role of the Department of Justice in examining misinformation and domestic terrorism through online platforms, Senator Coons asked, “Do you think the DOJ has a role to play in examining the role of misinformation and incitement online to contributing to violence, and that the DOJ has a role in working to help us develop reasonable solutions to this challenge?” Judge Garland responded, “I do think that an important part of the investigation of violent extremist groups is following their activities online and getting an idea of what kind of information, misinformation, is being put out. I look forward to talking more about this with you.”
In closing, Senator Coons asked whether a 9/11-style independent commission for the January 6th Capitol riots would help complement the Justice Department’s work and help improve understanding of the event. Judge Garland responded, “I do think the 9/11 Commission was very useful and very helpful in understanding what happened then and, of course, the Congress has full authority to conduct this kind of oversight investigation or to set up an independent commission. The only thing that I would ask, if I were confirmed, is that care be taken that it not – that commission's investigation not interfere with our ability to prosecute individuals and entities that caused the storming of the Capitol. As you well know, this is a very sensitive issue about disclosing operations which are still in progress, disclosing our sources and methods and allowing people to testify in a way that then makes it impossible to prosecute them.”
Full audio and video available here. A transcript is provided below.
Sen. Coons: Thank you, Chairman Durbin, Ranking Member Grassley. Judge Garland, welcome. Congratulations on your nomination and please convey my thanks to Lynn, to Jake, to Becky, to your family for supporting what has been a decades-long career at the bench and Bar as someone dedicated to public service, to law enforcement and to upholding the balance between justice and liberty. I cannot think of a more urgent task before us than restoring the people's faith in our institutions and in the rule of law. Your opening statement – which, in part, was dedicated to clarifying your view that the attorney general represents the public interest – and your enthusiasm for ensuring that the 115,000 career employees of the Department of Justice are appropriately sheltered from partisan or political influence is very encouraging to me after what I think were some harrowing moments in the last few years. As I am sure you know, there are quite a few admirers of yours who work here in this committee – some former clerks of yours who work closely with me, and many who have reassured me not just of your professional skill and great insights, but also of your personal decency, kindness, and thoughtfulness. I was struck in reading through your background that you’ve spent 20 years, quietly, as a tutor at an elementary school here in the District of Columbia, something I think not enough elected or appointed officials on either the bench or in Congress do, so thank you for your willingness to continue your service. I am from a small town in Delaware, which, like many other cities in America, was torn apart by concerns about racial justice and inequality; a city that has also struggled with long-standing challenges with gun violence, with insecurity and instability in our community. Our Mayor Mike Purzycki, our Governor John Carney, are doing a great job and working hard to try and address this, striking the right balance between protecting our citizens from gun violence, but also developing an environment where law enforcement is more transparent and accountable is going to be one of the core challenges, which you and the Department of Justice will be involved in, in partnership with state and local law enforcement and with other elected officials. In Wilmington and Dover, Delaware, we are rolling out body-worn cameras for law enforcement officers. Our governor’s committed to having that available for all of our law enforcement officers by 2025, but it is very expensive. It’s something law enforcement has embraced, it’s something that advocates have embraced. I am an appropriator for the Department of Justice, as well as a member of this committee. Is that something you can agree to be an advocate for, the funding and deployment of body-worn cameras, to ensure both accountability and improve trust between law enforcement and local communities?
Judge Garland: Well, Senator, I am again always happy to accept more resources for the Department of Justice. I do not know what that might take away from in other areas for the Department, but I personally think that body cams are a very important tool both to protect officers and to protect the citizens. And just as everyone – you were all on the inside, I was on the outside watching what happened on January 6th – and the fact that we were able to see exactly what was happening to the officers and the way in which they were carrying about their duties in the best way they could is only possible to capture because of the body cameras. I think it is an important tool for accountability, yes, I do.
Sen. Coons: Thank you, Your Honor. If you might, I do think it is important we increase investment in a variety of programs. I long worked for the Victims of Child Abuse Act. COVID-19 has demonstrated a tragic rise in child abuse, and this is a critical tool that allows state and local law enforcement to effectively address child abuse. The Bulletproof Vest Partnership Program, which has helped save 3000 officers’ lives, these and other grant programs are things I look forward to working with you on. There is also much needed legislation that will move us forward in terms of criminal justice reform and protecting communities from violence. Senator Cornyn and I hope to soon reintroduce the NICS Denial Notification Act which just ensures that state and local law enforcement gets notified when a person prohibited lies and tries – they attempt to purchase a gun. That is something that has been discussed in previous Congresses. On this committee we haven’t made progress on it, I think we should. Senator Wicker and I are soon going to introduce, reintroduce, the bipartisan Driving for Opportunity Act, which incentivizes states to stop suspending driver's licenses simply for unpaid fines and fees. It is a cruel, a counterproductive way to take away people's ability to get to work and ensures people are trapped in modern-day debt prisons. It is something that has strong support from law enforcement and civil rights groups and I would just be interested in whether you will work with us here in Congress to move bipartisan bills like these?
Judge Garland: I am extremely interested, if I’m confirmed, in working with the members of Congress, and particularly on bipartisan legislation. I do not know specifically about those, but each of them has the ring of something that is very important and quite reasonable.
Sen. Coons: Enactable, reasonable, “moving the ball forward” are the sorts of things I hope we get to work on. I will be serving as the Chair of the Subcommittee on Privacy, Technology, and the Law in this Congress and I look forward to working with Senator Sasse, who will serve as ranking member. One of the core things we will be looking at is how online misinformation is contributing to domestic terrorism, to division here. You’ve discussed your own experience with domestic terrorism cases and your plan to prioritize this issue. It is something the FBI director has said is one of our most pressing threats. Do you think the DOJ has a role to play in examining the role of misinformation and incitement online to contributing to violence, and that the DOJ has a role in working to help us develop reasonable solutions to this challenge?
Judge Garland: Well again, Senator, I think that every opportunity the Justice Department has to work with members of the Senate, think about how to solve problems and craft legislation, is one that we should take. I don’t have in mind particular legislation in this area. I do think that an important part of the investigation of violent extremist groups is following their activities online and getting an idea of what kind of information, misinformation, is being put out. I look forward to talking more about this with you.
Sen. Coons: Well, there is increasing regulatory schemes both in Europe and in California, and other states being considered, and I look forward to working with you on striking that appropriate balance between protecting data privacy, protecting individual liberty, but also protecting the competitiveness of the United States and globally making sure that we are pushing back on digital authoritarianism. Last, I am glad to see the Department is prosecuting – I think there’s 235 charges brought so far against rioters who invaded the Capitol and attacked our democracy on January 6th. I have supported calls for a 9/11-style independent commission to investigate the bigger picture of what caused this and what we might learn from it. Do you think an independent commission of that style would help complement the Department’s work and help the American people better understand the root causes of that riot, that incident, and then better help us both protect the Capitol and those of us who serve here, but more importantly, protect the underpinnings of our democracy?
Judge Garland: Well, Senator, I do think the 9/11 Commission was very useful and very helpful in understanding what happened then and, of course, the Congress has full authority to conduct this kind of oversight investigation or to set up an independent commission. The only thing that I would ask, if I were confirmed, is that care be taken that it not – that commission's investigation not interfere with our ability to prosecute individuals and entities that caused the storming of the Capitol. As you well know, this is a very sensitive issue about disclosing operations which are still in progress, disclosing our sources and methods and allowing people to testify in a way that then makes it impossible to prosecute them. So, with those caveats, I certainly could not object to anything that Congress would want to do in this regard.
Sen. Coons: Thank you. I am encouraged by the broad bipartisan support you have already garnered from this committee and publicly and look forward to supporting your confirmation.
Judge Garland: Thank you very much, Senator. I appreciate it.