The U.S. Senate is reportedly on the verge of confirming President Biden’s nominee for Attorney General, Merrick Garland.
The next Attorney General will have a major influence on many important matters, including the fate of the U.S. government’s case against Julian Assange.
Unlike many prominent officials from the Trump administration, Garland hasn’t made any public comments about Assange or the case. But it’s worth looking into Garland’s record and what he’s saying about his nomination for insight on how he’ll handle what has been described as the most important press freedom case in a generation.
Garland’s First Amendment Record
Garland spent 23 years as a federal appellate judge, seven of those as chief judge of the influential D.C. Circuit Court of Appeals. Press freedom groups have delved into his judicial opinions for insights into how he might handle First Amendment issues as Attorney General.
The Reporters Committee for Freedom of the Press found some cause for optimism, noting that Garland “has taken strong stands on First Amendment issues” in a number of cases. Specifically, RCFP notes, Garland defended the media’s right to publish questionably obtained information, supported a stronger reporter’s privilege, and showed a commitment to government transparency in his decisions on FOIA cases.
What happened at Garland’s confirmation hearing?
Garland’s nomination passed the Senate Judiciary Committee last week on a 15-7 vote after a relatively routine process. Press freedom issues were not a major theme of Garland’s confirmation hearing, and the Assange case was not brought up at all, but a few things stood out as potentially relevant to how Garland would act as Attorney General.
Garland testified that he would not allow politics to influence decisions about prosecutions and would resist pressure from the White House. On its face, that’s a welcome change of tone. It was the Trump Justice Department that politicized the Assange case after the Obama DoJ had previously decided that prosecuting Assange would create a “New York Times problem.”
How might this be a cause for concern? We want the Attorney General to ignore political concerns when making prosecutorial decisions, right? Yes. But coming on the heels of the precedent-shattering Trump administration, there are a lot of injustices that need to be undone. Simply letting bad cases play out allows injustice to fester.
Garland’s message here isn’t completely clear. One could interpret Garland’s words as an assurance that he will be independent, and not as an indication that he will allow his prosecutors to unjustly continue bad cases. Or one could extend that logic in the other direction: Garland might give Justice Department attorneys significant leeway to continue their work. He specifically mentioned allowing “ongoing cases” to play out, and attempted to contrast himself with predecessor William Barr’s willingness to intervene in criminal cases.
The Bottom Line
In all likelihood, Garland will be confirmed without ever being directly pressed on the Assange case. So we are unlikely to have clarity on how he’ll handle the matter in the near future.
We should be cautiously optimistic about Garland’s pro-transparency and pro-First Amendment record. And his promise to be independent should count as a plus — if true, it means he would be more resistant to other voices in the administration who might have animosity toward Assange.
There’s reason to believe Garland will arrive at a similar conclusion as former Attorney General Eric Holder — that, as the ACLU notes, “there is no way to prosecute [Julian Assange] for publishing classified information without opening the door to similar prosecutions of important investigative journalism.”
But Garland’s “by-the-book” ethos suggests he will likely defer to staff prosecutors who have already invested significant time and resources into pursuing Assange — at least for the time being. Being a deliberative leader is usually a good thing, but dragging your feet when confronted with manifest injustice isn’t. In this case, Garland might ultimately arrive at the right conclusion, but take his time getting there if he is hesitant to overrule his prosecutors and bring a swift end to Assange’s case.
In other words, Garland’s deference may trigger the old legal maxim: “justice delayed is justice denied.”