Yearning for Justice

The arrival of Merrick Garland

Merrick Garland evokes a swirl of emotions. Anger that Mitch McConnell refused to even give him a hearing for Supreme Court justice. Sadness that a man this good and intellectually talented was unfairly denied under false pretenses. Now relief and inspiration that the country can benefit from his wit, compassion and commitment to justice at a moment of such great need.

Credit to Joe Biden for a kind of karmic resolution: Garland is expected to be confirmed for Attorney General by the Senate Judiciary Committee today and the full Senate later this week.

The shameless rejection of justice and truth has often been overwhelming during the last four years. It’s not that Trump invented flagrant violations of law or is the first White House occupant to abandon the ideal of equality and the duty to serve our most vulnerable populations. This has been going on for a long time at the upper echelons of power in America. 

No, the intolerable thing was that that he openly, sadistically relished abandoning the values and ideals enshrined in the US Constitution and Declaration of Independence—“that all men are created equal”—and he found so many willing and arrogant accomplices. 

The mind wanders to one William Pelham Barr, Donald Trump’s Roy Cohn, who of course did nothing about the hundreds of migrant children who were stripped from their families—and whose first high-profile act after arriving as Attorney General on Valentine’s Day 2019 was to lie to the public about the contents of the Mueller Report, sowing confusion and doubt about its findings. 

Had Trump held onto power, this dispatch would be riddled with sadness and the struggle to envision an end to the still-deepening tragedy. But through the hard work and votes of so many millions, we can see the promise of a new presidential administration and a new Attorney General determined to try and set things right. 

Let’s pause on Merrick Garland’s pitch-perfect opening statement for his confirmation on February 22. Quoting Robert H. Jackson, a former Attorney General and Supreme Court justice, he said: “The prosecutor has more control over life, liberty, and reputation than any other person in America. While prosecutors at their best are one of the most beneficent forces in our society, when they act from malice or other base motives, they are one of the worst.”

Garland continued quoting Jackson: “The citizen’s safety lies in the prosecutor who tempers zeal with human kindness, who seeks truth and not victims, who serves the law and not factional purposes, and who approaches the task with humility.”

These are Merrick Garland’s ideals. These are his values. They do not guarantee he will be successful—that he will bend the moral arc of history toward justice—but we know he will try. And that it matters to him to try. And that’s a reason to be optimistic.

It’s worth noting that among Justice Jackson’s achievements was overseeing the Nuremberg trials to hold Nazi leaders accountable. In his opening statement of more than three hours on November 21, 1945, he described “the grave responsibility” of justice. “The wrongs which we seek to condemn and punish have been so calculated, so malignant, and so devastating, that civilization cannot tolerate their being ignored, because it cannot survive their being repeated.”

Throughout our history, too many of those in power were not held accountable for their corruption and criminality. Too many got away with turning a blind eye to shameful acts of injustice.

In his confirmation hearings, Merrick Garland hesitated stating exactly how he will confront the crimes of Trump and his cohorts. But I take confidence in his prosecution of the Oklahoma City bombing that left 168 people dead, his promise to confront the accelerating danger of domestic terrorism by white supremacists, and his pledge to investigate the Capitol insurrection and follow all leads “wherever they take us.” He called that deadly event “the most heinous attack on the democratic process that I’ve ever seen.”

I was also moved to hear about his own family history, which I didn’t know. Fighting back tears, Garland described his grandparents coming to America to escape antisemitism and persecution in Eastern Europe. Much like Secretary of State Antony Blinken, whose stepfather survived both Auschwitz and Dachau concentration camps, these deeply felt histories tell me that these humanistic men are genuinely driven by compassion, and a love of country and its noblest ideals.

Amid the horror of the last four years has been, in turn, the rising hunger for justice. To set things right. To repair and improve our democracy. To form a more perfect union. 

It’s that yearning and the recognition that it must be fought for, not presumed, that gives me hope. That will take the commitment of the new president and a new Attorney General and his Department of Justice. But it will also require the efforts of you and me and everyone who’s seen the display of evil and refuses to tolerate it or look away.