Merrick Garland stepped into his first congressional hot seat as attorney general Tuesday morning, testifying before the House Appropriations Committee to propose a multibillion-dollar budget increase for the Justice Department.
On paper, the hearing will consider the Justice Department’s budget request of $35.2 billion for the next fiscal year. But Garland will likely spend more time talking about the biggest issues facing his agency than the dollars the department is asking for.
“Almost 65 years after its creation, the Civil Rights Division’s work remains vital to addressing unlawful discrimination and bias. Our budget seeks to increase the Department’s civil rights funding by $33 million, providing a total of $209 million for the Civil Rights Division, the Community Relations Service, and related civil rights work,” Garland said in his opening comments, which were released Monday night.
The chairman of the committee, Democratic Rep. Matt Cartwright of Pennsylvania, said the increase for civil rights enforcement “is sorely needed” and said it was an “historic opportunity to address systemic barriers to full participation in society, ensure access to economic opportunities and protect the right to vote.”
Rep. Robert Aderholt of Alabama, the panel’s top Republican, said he is “concerned” that implementing the multi-billion dollar budget “would irresponsibly invest taxpayer dollars in initiatives that lack the proper grounding in evidence or science, such as the highly questionable gun buyback schemes and controversial restorative justice programs.”
Garland and his leadership team, including Vanita Gupta, who was confirmed as associate attorney general only two weeks ago, have moved swiftly to tackle some of the biggest civil rights issues confronting the country.
The Justice Department announced civil rights investigations into the practices of the Minneapolis and Louisville police departments in rapid succession last month, as well as criminal charges against three Georgia men accused of killing Ahmaud Arbery.
The men are already wrapped up in state proceedings for felony murder, but they are now faced with federal hate crimes and attempted kidnapping charges in connection with the death of 25-year-old Arbery, a Black man who was out for a jog near Brunswick, Georgia, in February 2020 when he was chased down in a truck by three men and fatally shot.
“Promoting public trust between communities and law enforcement is essential to making both communities and policing safer. Our budget proposes increased investment in programs that support community-oriented policing and addressing systemic inequities, including $1.2 billion, an increase of $304 million,” Garland said.
“We are seeking to increase our support to combat gun violence by $232 million for FY 2022, supporting both DOJ federal law enforcement resources as well as grant funding for community violence intervention programs, improved background checks, and more comprehensive redflag laws,” Garland said.
But broader issues are looming, like the long list of laws Republican legislatures are passing in several states effectively restricting the right to vote. Garland has not publicly moved forward with any plans to safeguard voting rights, but he addressed the issue in a written questionnaire before his confirmation hearing in February.
“I believe the Department of Justice has a central role in protecting the right to vote for all eligible Americans,” Garland wrote in his questionnaire. “Voting is foundational to our democracy, and protecting the fundamental right to vote will be a top priority of the Department should I be confirmed.”
The attorney general included voter rights protections in his multimillion-dollar increased budget for the Civil Rights Division and noted that “prosecuting hate crimes like those experienced by our Asian American and Pacific Islander communities during the COVID-19 pandemic, DOJ’s civil rights work is critical to protecting the American dream.”
Garland will also be questioned on the department’s plans for criminal justice revisions, gun safety and environmental justice, according to the person familiar with the plans for the hearing. Cybersecurity efforts, safeguarding the nation’s elections, and the opioid crisis are also expected to be topics of discussion.
The budget, Garland said, will include $120 million for the Justice Department’s Office on Violence Against Women “to expand our efforts to address widespread rape kit backlogs and to fund new investigative training programs for law enforcement officers and prosecutors in units dedicated to investigating gender based violence.”
He also said in his prepared statement that “a 21% budget increase for the Executive Office for Immigration Review will help support 100 new immigration judges, improved technology, and other efficiency mechanisms to reduce the backlog” of nearly 1.3 million cases pending in immigration courts.
Cartwright plans to raise another issue that could hit close to home for Garland, who served as a federal appellate judge on the DC Circuit Court of Appeals for almost 24 years. Cartwright will ask the attorney general if there’s a need for greater judicial security and additional federal marshals protecting judges, according to a person familiar with his plans, specifically referencing the gunman who killed the son of federal Judge Esther Salas in July 2020.
This story has been updated with details from Tuesday’s hearing.