President-elect Joe Biden could announce his attorney general election this week, and former Massachusetts Governor Deval Patrick is among the announced candidates.
If Patrick were nominated, he would face some of the same challenges he faced when President Clinton appointed him head of the Department of Justice’s civil rights division in the mid-1990s.
Tense political climate
To understand Patrick’s story with the Justice Department, it is helpful to go back to February 1, 1994, when Clinton called a press conference at the White House.
“Today I am proud to appoint Deval Patrick as assistant attorney general for civil rights,” said Clinton. “I think he is uniquely qualified to lead this division this decade.”
According to the dictionary definition of “unique”, this was not really true. In fact, Clinton had preferred more experienced civil rights attorneys for the job. But Conservatives rejected his first choice, and members of the Black Caucus of Congress rejected the second.
Enter Patrick, who was 37 at the time. He might be the third choice, but he also had something the others didn’t.
“Deval has a special attitude towards him,” said Ted Shaw, who worked with Patrick on the NAACP Legal Defense and Education Fund in the 1980s. “He’s not someone who fights or is philosophically contentious.”
Patrick’s even keel helped ease the left and right concerns. In a tense political environment where others had stalled, it was unanimously adopted by the Senate.
In today’s political environment, Patrick’s report of bilateral support could make him an attractive candidate – especially if Republicans hold onto their Senate majority.
GOP lawmakers have argued with others reportedly in the running, like former acting Attorney General Sally Yates. Some condemned Yates’ refusal to enforce President Trump’s travel ban to several Muslim-majority countries in 2017. Your claim that the ban is illegal would certainly come up again in a confirmatory hearing.
Federal Judge Merrick Garland is also on Biden’s list, according to multiple reports, but Republicans wouldn’t even consider him when President Obama nominated him to the Supreme Court four years ago.
Then there is Senator Doug Jones from Alabama, who has strong social justice but still might disappoint some Democrats.
“I prefer a black attorney general with a background in civil rights and voting rights,” Rev. Al Sharpton said on MSNBC last week after he and a group of civil rights leaders met with Biden.
Sharpton added that Patrick fits the bill. The former governor did not respond to an interview request.
When Patrick returns to the Justice Department, he will return to Washington after publicly known incidents of police violence against blacks.
“Whether we’re talking about Rodney King in the 1990s or Breonna Taylor in 2020, we must acknowledge that these cases are heavily racialized,” said Tanisha Sullivan, president of the NAACP Boston Branch. “Unfortunately, when you look at the parallels between the mid-1990s and now in 2020, they are there. And they address the ongoing problems we have, especially when it comes to policing.”
Current Attorney General William Barr was also AG when Rodney King was beaten by Los Angeles police. According to Sullivan, the Justice Department under his leadership has treated police brutality as an occasional series of isolated cases rather than as a systemic problem that disproportionately affects people of color. She hopes Patrick or another Biden candidate will take a different approach.
Patrick’s former Lieutenant Governor Tim Murray says his old boss would make a good attorney general because of his civil rights cards and one other quality.
“Just as important – maybe even more important – he’s having the right temper,” said Murray. “He’s someone who thinks, doesn’t react with gut instinct. He collects all the facts and makes appropriate decisions.”
Decisions for the next attorney general include whether to bring charges against the police officers who killed Breonna Taylor and George Floyd.