Biden Nominees Vow to Avoid Politicizing Justice Dept.


WASHINGTON — President Biden’s nominees to fill out the Justice Department’s leadership ranks pledged at their confirmation hearing on Tuesday to tackle domestic extremism, racial inequality and other thorny issues within the bounds of the law, seeking to restore order to a department battered by political attacks during the Trump administration.

Lisa Monaco, a Justice Department veteran and national security expert nominated to be deputy attorney general, and Vanita Gupta, a civil rights lawyer known for her criminal justice overhaul work tapped as the department’s No. 3, told the Senate Judiciary Committee that they were committed to ensuring that the department meted out equal justice under the law.

They also praised the 115,000 employees of the Justice Department for carrying out their work fairly and impartially — comments that stood in contrast to accusations by former President Donald J. Trump and former Attorney General William P. Barr that career employees could not be trusted to uphold the rule of law.

Ms. Monaco, 53, who if confirmed would oversee the department’s day-to-day operations, the nation’s federal prosecutors and the F.B.I., said in her opening testimony that as “an independent investigator and prosecutor,” it was important that the department “act free from any political or partisan influence.”

“Throughout my career, these norms have been my North Star,” Ms. Monaco said.

Ms. Gupta, 46, who was nominated to be the associate attorney general, would oversee prosecutors who argue for the Biden administration in court, officials who allocate federal grant money to state and local governments, and federal law enforcement organizations. She would also oversee the department’s Civil Rights Division, which she ran under the Obama administration.

“If confirmed, I will aggressively ensure that the Justice Department is independent from partisan influence,” Ms. Gupta said. “That independence is part of a long tradition, and it is vital to the fair administration of justice and preserving the public’s trust and confidence in our legal system.”

The remarks were met with approval by committee members, who agreed that the department had been improperly wielded for political gain — even as Democrats and Republicans disagreed about whether such politicization occurred under the Trump or the Obama administration.

Ms. Monaco and Ms. Gupta cast themselves as committed to Mr. Biden’s priorities on racial justice and combating domestic extremism but insisted that their first duty would be to uphold the Constitution.

“We will follow the president’s policy agenda so long as it’s consistent with the law,” Ms. Gupta said.

Mr. Biden’s vow to allow the department to operate free from political pressure will soon be tested in cases that Ms. Monaco would oversee. The U.S. attorney’s office in Delaware is investigating Mr. Biden’s son Hunter on suspicion of federal tax fraud, and the U.S. attorney’s office in Minneapolis is carrying out a civil rights investigation into the death of George Floyd, the Black man whose death last year after a police officer knelt on his neck set off nationwide protests.

Ms. Monaco said the Justice Department’s efforts to combat domestic extremism would be among her top priorities, especially in light of the Jan. 6 attack on the Capitol by a pro-Trump mob. She said the department needed to understand how “we could have such an attack that I personally never thought I would see in my lifetime.”

She pledged to deploy law enforcement resources to learn what motivated the insurrectionists and to prevent a repeat, calling the Justice Department’s sprawling investigation into the attack “nothing less than the defense of our democracy.”

While Ms. Monaco was well received by committee Republicans, the inquiry is likely to present her with several politically difficult issues should she be confirmed. Pieces of the investigation have drawn closer to Mr. Trump’s inner circle; defendants have said they acted at his behest; and the attack has prompted fears that Mr. Trump has fueled domestic extremism even as he maintains his grip on the Republican Party.

And civil libertarians have raised questions about how the F.BI. will investigate extremists for activities protected by the First Amendment.

Ms. Monaco also said in response to questions from Republicans that she would ensure that the special counsel examining the origins of the Russia investigation, John H. Durham, receive all resources necessary to complete his work.

Republicans on the committee reserved their sharpest questions for Ms. Gupta, who was a vocal critic of the Trump administration’s immigration policies, judicial appointments and civil rights work.

“Would that kind of partisan political advocacy affect her legal advocacy in a role where she represents all Americans?” asked Senator Charles E. Grassley of Iowa, the top Republican on the committee.

Republicans also pressed Ms. Gupta on policing, sometimes echoing a conservative attack ad that claimed she supported defunding the police. She said that was not her position, adding that she supported Mr. Biden’s commitment to provide an additional $300 million for community policing initiatives.

“I don’t support defunding the police,” Ms. Gupta said. “I have advocated for greater police resources.” She has the backing of dozens of police organizations and high-profile conservative groups, including Koch Industries, for her bipartisan efforts to enact criminal justice overhauls.

Ms. Gupta was also questioned about past comments about implicit bias; she said everyone, including herself, has biases that must be managed to ensure more fairness in the workplace and other institutional settings. Senator Tom Cotton, Republican of Arkansas, asked her whom she was biased against.

Declining to name a specific group, Ms. Gupta said: “I know that I hold stereotypes that I have to manage. I’m a product of my culture.”

“I believe that all of us are able to manage implicit bias, but only if we can acknowledge our own, and I am not above anyone else in that matter,” she said.

When asked about statements she made on Twitter that were sharply critical of Republicans, Ms. Gupta said she regretted them.

“I believe in the importance of building a consensus to get things done,” she said. “While I’ve been a lifelong, idealistic civil rights lawyer, I am a deeply pragmatic person.”

She also faced several questions about the Justice Department’s practice of transferring funds from large case settlements to third parties, including groups that provide social services or other aid.

Republicans have written legislation to stop what they call “slush fund” payments to such third parties, many of which are left-leaning. Former Attorney General Jeff Sessions essentially banned the practice.

Ms. Gupta said she would comply with the department’s existing policy. But Judge Merrick B. Garland, Mr. Biden’s nominee for attorney general, could reverse it.

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Janice Hill

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