When Congress established the U.S. Department of Justice in 1870, the problems it faced were enormous. Threats to domestic security after a failed insurrection. Voting rights for Black people under assault. Violence perpetrated against people of color. Official corruption unpunished.
More than 150 years later, and after four years of Trump administration abuses, the Justice Department inherits problems that echo this history.
President Joe Biden’s newly confirmed attorney general, Merrick Garland, invoked this historical parallel last month at the Senate Judiciary Committee during his confirmation hearing.
Garland reminded senators that the DOJ “was founded during Reconstruction, in the aftermath of the Civil War, to secure the civil rights that were promised in the 13th, 14th and 15th amendments.” He also declared that voting is “the fulcrum of our democracy.”
That was the first time in at least 40 years — and possibly in living memory — that a nominee for U.S. attorney general cited in his opening statement to the Judiciary Committee the three constitutional amendments at the root of what has been called the “second founding” of our nation, recalling the defining purpose of the Justice Department.
By doing so, Garland reminded us that these three amendments transformed our nation’s charter from one that countenanced slavery and its badges and incidents to one that promised equality and protection from state abuses of fundamental rights, including the right to vote and the right to be secure.
Given renewed attacks on the right to vote by some state legislatures, as well as ongoing police violence against Black people and hate crimes targeting people of color, voting rights and racial equity are sure to dominate our nation’s legal agenda for years to come. Often, those disputes will culminate before the nine justices of the U.S. Supreme Court.
That makes another, less visible, office in the Justice Department — solicitor general of the United States — a critically important position for Biden to fill.
The question is whether he will select a nominee ready to meet this fraught moment in our history and help honor the second founding of our nation that Garland so eloquently invoked.
Often called the “tenth justice,” the solicitor general has immense power. As perhaps the advocate from whom the Supreme Court seeks guidance most often, and most seriously, the solicitor general speaks for the U.S. government in disputes across a panoply of issues that affect all of us daily.
The next solicitor general will have to face legal disputes arising out of voter suppression, attempted insurrection, police violence — including grappling with failed judge-made doctrines like qualified immunity that breed police impunity —and many other critical challenges. The solicitor general must explain why the justices cannot ignore or deny our Constitution’s promises of equality and liberty to all in America. To this end, there is a stirring history from which Biden can draw inspiration for his choice.
For example, he could look to the very first solicitor general, Benjamin Helm Bristow, who was appointed in 1870, the same year the Justice Department was created
Bristow was a pro-Union lawyer from Kentucky who fought the Confederacy as a colonel in the Union Army and was wounded at the battle of Shiloh. He was also a law partner of the first John Marshall Harlan, who later became the Supreme Court justice famous for his lone dissent in Plessy v. Ferguson.
Before rising to solicitor general, Bristow served as U.S. attorney for Kentucky. Seth Waxman, solicitor general in the Clinton administration, wrote that Bristow over his tenure “distinguished himself as one of the most aggressive and successful prosecutors of Ku Klux Klan cases in the country.”
With this record, President Ulysses Grant chose Bristow to be solicitor general. Once in office, he “wrote many opinions, made arguments in several important constitutional cases before the Supreme Court, and won a reputation for mastery of federal jurisprudence,” reads his biography on the DOJ website.
Biden could also look to a future successor of Bristow’s nearly 100 years later. Before becoming solicitor general and then Supreme Court justice — the first African American to hold either office — Thurgood Marshall displayed a courage all his own. He risked his life in towns and hamlets across the south in his historic work battling Jim Crow.
The career he built leading up to his government service is legendary. After leading the team of lawyers at the NAACP Legal Defense Fund who, over decades of tireless labor, systematically dismantled much of the legal regime underpinning American racial segregation, Marshall was uniquely qualified to be solicitor general. His appointment by President Lyndon Johnson met the national moment, while vindicating the Justice Department’s founding history.
The time for such bold leadership is upon us again. Biden has a historic opportunity to choose a solicitor general worthy of Bristow and Marshall. Our times demand nothing less.
Elizabeth Wydra is president of Constitutional Accountability Center, a public interest law firm and think tank dedicated to promoting the progressive promise of the Constitution’s text, history and values. Follow her on Twitter @ElizabethWydra.