By Jarrett Renshaw and Sarah N. Lynch
(Reuters) - President-elect Joe Biden will nominate federal appeals judge Merrick Garland to be the next U.S. attorney general, a Biden transition official said on Wednesday, a choice most Americans know as the Supreme Court nominee of President Barack Obama memorably blocked by Republicans.
Garland, 68, serves as a judge on the U.S. Court of Appeals for the District of Columbia Circuit, one of 13 federal appeals courts. Obama, a Democrat, nominated him to the Supreme Court in 2016 while Biden was vice president, but the Republican-controlled U.S. Senate refused to hold hearings on the nomination.
Biden, who takes office in two weeks, also intends to nominate Justice Department veterans Lisa Monaco as deputy attorney general and Kristen Clarke as the assistant attorney general to the Civil Rights Division, the official said.
Vanita Gupta, the head of the Leadership Conference on Civil and Human Rights, will be nominated by Biden as the Associate Attorney General, the No. 3 person in the department, a second source familiar with the matter said.
The news broke as Democrats looked set to win two U.S. Senate seats in Georgia runoff elections held on Tuesday. That would give the party control of both houses of Congress, give Biden more leeway to enact his agenda and all but assure Garland's appointment, which requires Senate approval.
During his election campaign, Biden pledged to take steps to end racial disparities in sentencing by eliminating mandatory minimum sentences, ending the use of the federal death penalty and restoring the Justice Department's role of investigating and holding police departments accountable for "systemic misconduct."
While many of these initiatives would require approval from Congress, Garland as attorney general would have significant power to address these topics through policy changes, including instructing prosecutors not to seek the death penalty and making charging decisions that do not trigger mandatory minimums.
Republican Senator Lindsey Graham of South Carolina, the current chair of the Senate Judiciary Committee, said on Twitter that Garland "would be a sound choice" for attorney general.
"He is a man of great character, integrity, and tremendous competency in the law," wrote Graham, who would lose his chairmanship if Democrats prevail in Georgia.
POLITICALLY SENSITIVE INVESTIGATIONS
If confirmed, Garland will face several politically sensitive investigations from the start.
Delaware's top federal prosecutor is investigating Joe Biden's son Hunter over tax issues and federal prosecutors in Manhattan are probing outgoing President Donald Trump's personal lawyer Rudy Giuliani's business dealings in Ukraine.
Garland will also need to contend with an ongoing investigation by Special Counsel John Durham, a Trump-appointed federal prosecutor in Connecticut, who is probing law enforcement and intelligence officials over their investigation of Trump's 2016 presidential campaign.
William Barr, who appointed Durham before ending his term as attorney general last month, faced criticism for his willingness to intervene in criminal cases in ways that benefited Trump's political allies, such as Michael Flynn and Roger Stone.
Barr also came under criticism from human rights groups and others for his decision to carry out the federal death penalty after a 17-year hiatus and his willingness to use federal agents to quell violence during protests over racial injustice in policing.
Garland, who has served on the federal appeals bench since 1997, is no stranger to the Justice Department.
Before becoming a judge, he worked as a federal prosecutor and helped secure a conviction against Timothy McVeigh for the 1995 Oklahoma City bombing that killed 168 people. He was also on the team that secured a conviction of former District of Columbia Mayor Marion Barry for cocaine possession.
Garland held other key posts at the Justice Department, including serving as principal deputy associate attorney general to Deputy Attorney General Jamie Gorelick starting in 1994.
Obama nominated Garland in March 2016 to replace long-serving conservative justice Antonin Scalia, who died on Feb. 13, 2016. But then-Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell, a Republican, refused to consider the nomination on the grounds it should not occur in a presidential election year.
That stance, assailed by Democrats at the time, came under further criticism two months before the 2020 presidential election when McConnell rushed to confirm Trump's nominee Amy Coney Barrett to fill the vacancy of the late liberal Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg.
Kristen Clarke serves as the president and executive director of the Lawyers’ Committee for Civil Rights Under Law. She previously served as a federal prosecutor in the department's Civil Rights Division and also worked for the NAACP Legal Defense and Educational Fund Inc where she focused on voting rights cases.
Lisa Monaco previously served as assistant attorney general to the Justice Department's National Security Division, as well as principal deputy assistant attorney general. Her name had been floated for weeks as a candidate for a high-profile job in the Biden administration.
(Reporting by Jarrett Renshaw and Sarah N. Lynch; additional reporting by Simon Lewis; Editing by Chizu Nomiyama, Howard Goller and Noeleen Walder)