Who Might Joe Biden Select To Lead The Justice Department?

Nov 19, 2020
Originally published on November 19, 2020 12:49 pm

Updated at 10:40 a.m. EST 11/20/20

Choosing an attorney general is a critical task for a new president in normal times.

But after nearly four years of attack from President Trump, who pushed the Justice Department to punish his enemies and protect his friends, these are not normal times, as former Solicitor General Don Verrilli pointed out recently to an online audience at the Brennan Center for Justice.

"I think we have to not only rebuild the public's confidence in the Department of Justice as an institution, we have to rebuild the sense of confidence and integrity on the inside, because it's been so terribly, terribly damaged over the last three and a half years," Verrilli said. "It's a colossal tragedy."

Restoring public confidence in law enforcement will be the main job of the next attorney general. But for President-elect Joe Biden and his team, picking the next leader of the Justice Department may not be an easy call.

The diverse coalition that helped Biden win the White House has some strong ideas about overhauling the system that include stricter oversight of police departments and rethinking who and how many people are sent to prison.

That poses a dilemma for the Justice Department, and the new administration in general: Pick a candidate who will shake up the way things have worked for decades? Or choose someone with experience prosecuting cases and managing 113,000 employees and a nearly $30 billion budget?

Potential candidates

Latinx advocates are pushing for former civil rights division chief and Labor Secretary Tom Perez. Perez helped usher in a wave of consent decrees with errant police departments in the Obama years.

"We're not in this to fix the blame, we're in this to fix the problem," he told NPR in 2011.

Then-Vice President Biden reaches to shake hands with new Labor Secretary Thomas Perez during a ceremonial swearing-in ceremony for Perez on Sept. 4, 2013.
Manuel Balce Ceneta / AP

But Perez currently runs the Democratic National Committee, which may make an appointment seem too close to political combat for Biden. The incoming president has stressed the need for the Justice Department to reach decisions and act independently following what Democrats call improper closeness with Trump.

Others want to see a Black attorney general, such as former Massachusetts Gov. Deval Patrick, who led civil rights at Justice in the Bill Clinton era, or Tony West, who served as the associate attorney general — the third in command — in the Barack Obama years.

West now runs the legal department at Uber Technologies — not an easy job, as he told an interviewer who wondered why he took that daunting post at a conference in 2018.

"Well, I mean, why do people climb great mountains, right?" West asked. "It was a huge, huge challenge."

Then again, West could be a sensitive choice in an administration anxious about the distance between the White House and the DOJ because he's the brother-in-law of Vice President-elect Kamala Harris.

Practical politics always plays a role in who might get a nomination, and that could be the case if Republicans retain their majority in the Senate, which confirms major presidential nominees.

Senate Republicans have signaled they would support outgoing Alabama Sen. Doug Jones, a Democrat who worked as U.S. attorney in Birmingham during the Clinton administration.

Another leading candidate is former Deputy Attorney General Sally Yates. President Trump fired her 10 days into the administration for refusing to defend his travel ban for visitors from majority Muslim countries. Yates referenced that episode in remarks at the Democratic convention this year.

"That was the start of his relentless attacks on our democratic institutions and countless dedicated public servants," she said.

Before she became known for how she left Justice, Yates had been a career prosecutor, meaning she worked in top jobs under Democrats and Republicans, for 27 years. She brought to justice corrupt public officials in her native state of Georgia as well as Olympic Park bomber Eric Rudolph.

Yates' supporters point out that during the Obama years, she helped promote education programs for incarcerated people and phased out DoJ's contracts with private prisons. Trump appointees later reversed both those move

The deputy

For deputy attorney general, the No. 2 job at Justice, one leading candidate is Neil MacBride.

MacBride has been the top federal prosecutor in Northern Virginia, where he oversaw prosecutions against gang members, white collar fraudsters and even Somali pirates — winning the first such jury convictions in more than 190 years.

Leondra Kruger, right, is seen during her confirmation hearing to the California Supreme Court on Dec. 22, 2014.
S. Todd Rogers / AP

MacBride also has long ties to Biden. He worked for the president-elect in the Senate and deferred law school 33 years ago to work on Biden's first campaign for president.

Other new appointees at Justice could make history.

Vanita Gupta, who ran the civil rights unit under President Obama, may be in line to serve as associate attorney general, overseeing a broad portfolio that includes civil rights.

California Supreme Court Justice Leondra Kruger is a possible U.S. solicitor general — perhaps as part of a career track that could be her route to the Supreme Court as the Black woman nominee Biden has promised.

Copyright 2020 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

RACHEL MARTIN, HOST:

For almost four years, President Trump has attacked the FBI and career prosecutors at the Justice Department, so new leaders there will have a big job on their hands. And NPR's Carrie Johnson reports on the leading candidates for attorney general.

CARRIE JOHNSON, BYLINE: Choosing an attorney general is a critical task for a new president in normal times, but these are not normal times. Former U.S. Solicitor General Don Verrilli says the Trump administration took a sledgehammer to the Justice Department.

DONALD VERRILLI: You have to not only rebuild the public's confidence in the Department of Justice as an institution, we're going to need to rebuild the sense of confidence and integrity on the inside because it's been so terribly, terribly damaged over the last 3 1/2 years. It's a colossal tragedy.

JOHNSON: Restoring public confidence in law enforcement will be the main job of the next attorney general. But for President-elect Joe Biden and his team, picking the next leader of the Justice Department may not be an easy choice. The diverse coalition that helped Biden win the White House has some strong ideas about overhauling the system - firmer oversight of police departments, rethinking who and how many people are sent to prison. That sets up a dilemma. Do you pick a candidate who will shake up the way things have worked, or do you choose someone with experience managing more than 100,000 employees and a multibillion-dollar budget? Latino advocates are pushing for former civil rights chief Tom Perez. Perez helped usher in a wave of consent decrees with troubled police departments early in the Obama years.

TOM PEREZ: We're not in this to fix the blame. We're in this to fix the problem.

JOHNSON: But in recent years, Perez ran the Democratic National Committee, which might be too tied to political combat for a Biden AG. Others want to see a Black attorney general, like former Massachusetts Governor Deval Patrick, who led civil rights at Justice in the Clinton era. And Senate Republicans say they'd support outgoing Alabama Senator Doug Jones, who served as U.S. attorney in Birmingham in the late 1990s. Another leading candidate is former Deputy Attorney General Sally Yates. President Trump fired her 10 days into the administration for refusing to defend his travel ban for visitors from majority-Muslim countries. Yates referenced that episode at the Democratic Convention this year.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

SALLY YATES: That was the start of his relentless attacks on our democratic institutions and countless dedicated public servants.

JOHNSON: Before she became known for how she left Justice, Yates had been a career prosecutor working under Democrats and Republicans for 27 years. She brought to justice corrupt public officials in her native state of Georgia. During the Obama years, she helped promote education programs for incarcerated people and phased out DOJ contracts with private prisons. For deputy attorney general, the No. 2 job at Justice, one leading candidate is Neil MacBride. MacBride has been the top federal prosecutor in Northern Virginia, where he handled sensitive national security cases like this one.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

NEIL MACBRIDE: Today marks the first jury conviction of piracy in more than 190 years. These five Somali pirates were convicted of an armed assault in the high seas.

JOHNSON: MacBride has deep ties to Biden. He deferred law school 33 years ago to work on Biden's first campaign for president. Other new appointees at Justice could make history. Vanita Gupta, who ran the civil rights unit under President Obama, may be in line to serve as associate attorney general overseeing civil rights. California Supreme Court Justice Leondra Kruger is a possible U.S. solicitor general, perhaps en route to the Supreme Court as the Black woman nominee Biden has promised. Carrie Johnson, NPR News, Washington.

(SOUNDBITE OF NEIL COWLEY TRIO'S "MISSION") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.