UPDATED — Former U.S. Sen. Doug Jones had a lot of assets that put him on the short list of candidates for attorney general in the incoming Biden Administration.
For one thing, he had a longstanding friendship with the president-elect. For another, he had been a high-profile defense attorney and a U.S. attorney in Alabama’s northern district, and he had helped bring to justice two suspects in the horrific 1963 bombing of Birmingham’s Sixteenth Street Baptist Church. In addition, during his three years as a U.S. senator, Jones had forged relationships across the aisle. On top of that, senators traditionally are reluctant to vote against a former senator who is nominated for a Cabinet post.
Those assets are still there, and Democrats believe they may help Jones be successfully nominated for another post in the Biden Administration, just not that of the nation’s chief law enforcement officer.
On Thursday, Biden formally nominated federal appeals court judge Merrick Garland for the AG post, saying he embodied “honor and decency, integrity, fidelity to the rule of law and judicial independence.”
In a Tweet, Jones said Garland would “bring the integrity, professionalism and dedication to DOJ that is badly needed.”
Referring to a pro-Trump mob’s Wednesday assault on the U.S. Capitol, Jones added, “The events of yesterday only underscore the challenges that he and his talented team will face on day 1 and they will need everyone’s support. He and the team certainly have mine.”
Former Alabama Supreme Court Justice Ralph Cook said Wednesday that, for the past several weeks, he had been Zoom-discussing Jones and the attorney general nomination with some fellow Democrats. Their conclusion, he said, was that the longer it took for Biden to make his choice, the less likely that choice was going to be Jones.
But it may well have been that Biden was waiting to see what would happen in Georgia’s U.S. Senate runoff Tuesday. As it happened, Democratic nominees Jon Ossoff and the Rev. Raphael Warnock won the two seats in question, giving the party control of the Senate. Jones would have been likely to be confirmed by a GOP-controlled Senate, if the Democrats had failed to win either Georgia Senate seat.
The 68-year-old Garland, a former federal prosecutor now serving on the U.S. Court of Appeals for the District of Columbia Circuit, was nominated by former President Barack Obama to fill a U.S. Supreme Court vacancy in 2016. But Republican Majority Leader Mitch McConnell balked, saying whoever won the presidency in 2016 should fill the vacancy.
With a number of Republican senators expected to support him, Garland is expected to be confirmed as attorney general by the Senate, if Biden follows through and nominates him. Cook said Garland’s nomination would give Biden an opportunity to fill a vacancy in the D.C. Circuit with a much younger judge. The D.C. court has jurisdiction over suits involving many federal agencies and so has influence on administrative law and constitutional law.
Cook said he figures Jones “will land on his feet” somewhere in the Biden Administration. “They just have a long personal relationship, and Biden is going to take care of him,” Cook said.
Cook also added that not getting the AG job could be a blessing in disguise for the Fairfield native.
“There are a lot of positions available for Doug that will give him a lot less headache than being AG, because over the next four years, I suspect that that department is going to have to be rebuilt to a significant degree and things are going to have to be changed so that it can instill confidence in the American people a bit more,” Cook said. “So there’s going to be a lot going on in the Justice Department.”
“Who knows? Doug may get appointed an ambassador to some fancy place and we can all go visit,” Cook said.
In their remarks Thursday, Biden and Garland indicated that a lot would be going on, including a restoration of the Justice Department’s integrity and independence, which Biden said had been “so badly damaged” during the Trump years.
“I want to be clear to those who lead this department … . You won’t work for me,” Biden said. “You are not the president’s or the vice president’s lawyer. Your loyalty isn’t to me. It’s to the law, the Constitution, the people of this nation to guarantee justice.”
Garland, referring to the Wednesday assault by a pro-Trump mob on the U.S. Capitol, said, “As everyone who watched yesterday’s events … now understands, if they did not understand before, the rule of law is not just some lawyer’s turn of phrase. It is the very foundation of our democracy. The essence of the rule of law is that like cases are treated alike, that there not be one rule for Democrats, another for Republicans; one rule for friends, another for foes; one rule for the powerful, another for the powerless; one rule for the rich, another for the poor, or different rules depending upon one’s race or ethnicity.”
This story has been updated to include the official nomination and Jones’ comments.