Senior Republican members of the Senate Judiciary Committee grilled Attorney General Merrick Garland on Wednesday about the nation’s fentanyl crisis, the flow of drugs and migrants over the U.S.-Mexico border and the Justice Department’s stance on mandatory minimum sentences.
The moments of drama came during the panel’s first oversight hearing of the Justice Department in the 118th Congress.
Sen. John Cornyn (R-Texas) challenged Garland over a Justice Department memo recommending that prosecutors not seek mandatory minimum sentences in some drug cases.
Cornyn pointed out that drug-related deaths in the United States have become so frequent that the daily death toll is equivalent to a passenger jet crashing and killing everyone on board every day.
“I have been just astonished at the lack of sense of urgency to deal with this issue,” he said, blaming the flow of drugs across the border on the Biden administration’s law enforcement and asylum policies.
He then zeroed in on a Garland memo that argued the proliferation of mandatory-minimum sentencing guidelines had caused too many disproportionately severe sentences.
Garland responded that “it’s a question of the resources,” adding “we don’t have money, we don’t have enough jails, we don’t have enough judges.”
That answer didn’t sit well with Cornyn, who replied sternly: “You’ve arrogated to yourself the decision to make policy.”
“You’re telling prosecutors don’t charge those if they involve a mandatory-minimum sentence,” he said.
When Garland countered that his memo didn’t apply in violent crime or drug trafficking, Cornyn accused him of “cherry-picking which cases you will charge with a mandatory-minimum sentence.”
Sen. Ted Cruz (R-Texas) demanded the nation’s top law enforcement officer explain the discrepancy between the number of prosecutions of counselors and activists who oppose abortion rights and those who support those rights.
The hearing grew heated when Cruz accused the Justice Department of showing little urgency in protecting Supreme Court justices from protesters after a decision last summer overturning Roe v. Wade. The Texas senator repeatedly interrupted Garland until Senate Judiciary Committee Chairman Dick Durbin (D-Ill.) stepped in to enforce the limit on Cruz’s time.
“You spent 20 years as a judge and you’re perfectly content with justices being afraid for their children’s lives, and you did nothing to prosecute it,” Cruz said.
The exchange was one of the few times Garland raised his voice during the hearing, with the attorney general noting the Dobbs decision prompted the first time in history that U.S. Marshals were asked to provide 24/7 security at the homes of Supreme Court justices. It was up to agents themselves, however, whether to arrest anyone who approached justices’ homes.
“Senator, you asked me whether I sat on my hands and [it was] quite the opposite, I sent 70 United States Marshals to defend [their homes],” Garland said before being cut off by Cruz.
“The marshals on scene – they do make the decision over whether to make an arrest,” he said.
The fallout of the Dobbs decision, including responses to protestors, was a running theme throughout the hearing, with multiple lawmakers accusing the department of anti-Catholic bias following the leak of an FBI memo detailing growing overlap between white nationalist groups and “Radical-Traditionalist Catholics” which it identifies as a small minority within the church.
Garland condemned the memo, telling Sen. Josh Hawley (R-Mo.) that “I saw the document you have, it’s appalling, it’s appalling. I am in complete agreement with you. I understand the FBI has withdrawn it and is now looking into how this ever could have happened.”
Hawley also pushed Garland on issues related to abortion, asking, without evidence, “how many informants do you have in Catholic churches across America?”
“I don’t believe we have any informants aimed at Catholic churches. We have rules against investigations based on first amendment activity and Catholic churches are obviously first amendment activity,” Garland said.
Sen. Tom Cotton (R-Ark.) quizzed Garland about the murder rates in the home countries of migrants seeking asylum and expressed surprise the attorney general didn’t have those stats at his fingertips.
He then pointed out that murder rates are higher in major U.S. cities.
“Should American citizens in places like New Orleans and Baltimore and St. Louis begin to seek asylum in countries like Honduras and Guatemala under your asylum principles?” Cotton asked.
Garland replied that his department’s asylum policies are guided by threats faced by individuals in countries where the local governments are unwilling or unable to protect them, not just on murder rates.
Cotton also hit Garland over the selective pursuit of mandatory-minimum sentences by federal prosecutors.
“You said to Sen. Conryn this is about allocating resources,” he said incredulously. “What resources are you talking about?”
Cotton pointed out the number of federal inmates has dropped from 219,000 to 158,000 over the past ten years and demanded: “Do you need more prisons?”
Garland said many senators have complained that jails are overcrowded and that has made it difficult to protect guards and prisoners from violence.
Sen. Lindsey Graham (R-S.C.), the ranking member of the Judiciary panel, pressed Garland on designating Mexican drug cartels as terrorist organizations.
Garland said he had no objection but cautioned that such a decision is up to the State Department and he would defer to its authority.
The attorney general said the Mexican government is “helping us” in trying to interdict fentanyl shipments but conceded “they could do much more.”
Asked whether U.S. drug policies are working, Garland acknowledged “they are not stopping fentanyl from killing Americans” but emphasized “we are putting all the resources that Congress provides to us into” fighting drug smuggling.