Biden’s Top 5 Contenders for Attorney General and their Influence on Racial Justice
The US Attorney General (AG) serves as the prime lawyer of the federal government and heads the Department of Justice. The AG Cabinet position hasn’t been as critical for previous administrations. This year some of the largest racial demonstrations in a century took place and have pressured the incoming Biden Administration to nominate an Attorney General that addresses systemic racism in America.
According to reports from The Associated Press, this is President-elect Biden’s shortlist for the next Attorney General of the United States:
New York Governor Andrew Cuomo (NY-D)
Governor Cuomo reached the political limelight due to his aggressive and effective leadership throughout the COVID-19 pandemic. When New York City became an early hotspot, Cuomo strongly advocated for federal support in terms of equipment, finances, and infrastructure. The Governor’s robust stance against re-opening the state was significant because in doing so, he protected the lives of the most vulnerable, people of color.
However, his strong advocacy for federal resources antagonized President Trump and Republicans in Washington, DC. This is important because Biden’s nominee must be confirmed by a majority of the U.S. Senate. Because Cuomo angered the Trump Administration earlier during the pandemic, he may face a considerable challenge when seeking Senate confirmation.
Alabama Senator Doug Jones (AL-D)
In 2018, Senator Doug Jones won his seat during a special election. His victory in Alabama, one of the most conservative states in the country, shows that the Senator is capable of empathizing with Republicans, possibly easing his confirmation by the Senate. Apart from the Senator’s meaningful win in Alabama, he has an impressive record of fighting for racial justice.
As U.S. Attorney for the Northern District of Alabama, he successfully prosecuted members of the Ku Klux Klan (KKK) in the 1963 16th Street Baptist Church bombing. The racially motivated event, which killed four Black girls, garnered national attention along with President John F. Kennedy’s assassination. The coupling of the two events propelled Congress to pass the 1964 Civil Rights Act. In 2007, Jones was awarded the Civil Rights Distinguished Service Award by the Birmingham Civil Rights Institute. That same year, he testified before Congress on the significance of reviewing crimes committed during the Civil Rights Era.
One of the most prevalent issues handled by the Department of Justice would be a reversal of policies from the War on Drugs, which disproportionately affected Americans of color. Jones has already taken action on this issue by voting for the First Step Act, aimed at reducing recidivism rates.
Former US Attorney General Sally Yates
President Obama appointed Sally Yates as Deputy Attorney General in 2015. During this time, she worked towards restructuring the criminal justice system and oversaw the closure of approximately 12% of private prisons in the country. Her past projects are significant because their goal was to reach racial equity in the justice system. Yates became Attorney General for President Trump during his first days in office. She was fired by Trump because she disagreed to defend and implement Trump’s travel ban on several Muslim-majority countries. This contention between Trump and Yates means that the Biden Administration may struggle to confirm Yates through a Republican-led Senate.
Sherrilyn Ifill, President of the NAACP Legal Defense Fund, advises that a nominee should have “a demonstrated record of criminal justice reform, as well as civil rights.” Yates’s experience with civil rights cases as Deputy Attorney General and later as AG under Trump is far greater than that of other contenders for the position. This experience would be essential to effectively implement policies addressing demands by the George Floyd protests and the Black Lives Matter movement, such as “[rooting] out unconstitutional or unlawful policing.”
DC Circuit Court Judge Merrick Garland
President Clinton appointed Judge Garland to the Circuit Court of Appeals of the District of Columbia (DC) in 1997. Garland’s extensive experience with the law, as a judge and federal attorney, would set him apart from other contenders. Garland has been considered for the Supreme Court a total of three times. When he received an official nomination by President Obama, the Republican-controlled Senate opposed his appointment to the Court during Obama’s last year in office. Garland’s second nomination to the bench would be a drastic political move by the Biden Administration against previous opposition by the GOP.
Before serving as a Judge for the DC Circuit, Garland worked in the Criminal Division of the Department of Justice. During this time, he prosecuted several high-profile terrorism, drug trafficking, and public corruption cases. In the case of the Oklahoma City Bombing and its perpetrators, Garland sought the death penalty and won praise from Republicans. While Judge Garland has some experience with policies that primarily impact Americans of color, he would have less of a pragmatic and activist position in comparison to other contenders.
Former Massachusetts Governor Deval Patrick
Deval Patrick became Massachusetts’s first African American Governor in 2006 when incumbent Governor Mitt Romney decided not to pursue reelection. During his nine years of leadership, until 2015, he oversaw a rise in minimum wage, health care reform, and tax increases. Patrick represented the NAACP and supervised the Civil Rights Division of the DOJ under President Clinton. Patrick focused on racial profiling and police misconduct while he led the DOJ’s Civil Rights Division.
What makes Patrick unique is his appropriate temperament and decisive leadership. As Ted Shaw, a former NAACP colleague, describes him, “[Deval Patrick] isn’t someone who is picking fights or philosophically cantankerous (argumentative).” His character would be a crucial asset in gaining support from Republicans to pass justice reform and expand civil rights.
Additionally, multiple race advocacy groups are currently pushing Biden to nominate a person of color and with a background in civil rights to the position of Attorney General. Deval Patrick is the only individual on this list that meets that criteria. The reason for having a person of color lead the Department of Justice is not solely based on identity politics. Organizations such as the NAACP argue that a person of color would more accurately represent the struggles and oppressive background of non-white America.
President-elect Biden had initially planned to announce his pick for Attorney General on 9 December but decided to make an economic announcement instead. This announcement change may be due to the Senate’s ongoing elections; the two Georgia runoff elections will decide which party will control the Senate. If Democrats win both elections, the Senate will have a 50–50 Democratic majority with Vice president-elect Kamala Harris breaking ties. But if one of the elections is won by a Republican, the Senate will remain in Republican leadership.
Why does this matter? A Democrat-controlled Senate provides Biden more political flexibility in nominating an Attorney General. The bipartisan political popularity of a nominee is less concerning if Democrats control the Senate. Therefore, Biden would be able to pick a contender that is more progressive or farther from the status quo.