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Attorney General Merrick B. Garland Addresses the National Association of Attorneys General


Washington, DC
United States

WASHINGTON – This morning Attorney General Merrick Garland addressed a bipartisan group of 27 State Attorneys General as part of the Capital Forum hosted by National Association of Attorneys General.

In his remarks, Attorney General Garland outlined the three core and co-equal priorities that guide the Justice Department’s work: upholding the rule of law; protecting civil rights; and keeping our country safe. He also emphasized the long history and continuing importance of cooperation between the U.S. Department of Justice and State Attorneys General to ensure economic opportunity and fairness for all Americans through robust antitrust enforcement.

See the Attorney General’s remarks here and below.

Attorney General Garland Delivers Remarks at the National Association of Attorneys General

Remarks as Delivered

Good morning.  I want to begin by thanking my friend, Attorney General Racine, for inviting me to join you today. Karl, thank you for your leadership of the National Association of Attorneys General.

I also want to congratulate President-elect Tom Miller of Iowa. Tom began his second tour of duty as Attorney General right around the time that I returned for my second tour of duty at Main Justice – as a Deputy Assistant Attorney General in the Criminal Division. Tom’s second tour has been continuous since then. Mine took an almost 25-year judicial detour.

I appreciate the opportunity to join all of you today – at least virtually. My association with NAAG is not new. It stretches all the way back to the 1980s when, as a lawyer in private practice, I served on NAAG moot courts to prepare state Attorneys General for their Supreme Court arguments.

It continued into the 1990s when, as a Justice Department official, I helped organize joint NAAG/DOJ meetings in Washington.

And just this September, I had the chance to meet with several of you as part of the most recent convening of the Executive Working Group on Prosecutorial Relations. I am grateful for that productive discussion and for our ongoing work to ensure public safety and building trust with the communities we serve.

The spirit of working to find common ground, wherever and whenever we can, has defined the partnership between the Justice Department and the National Association of Attorneys General for more than a century. In 1907, Attorneys General from across America – from Minnesota to Mississippi, from Colorado to Massachusetts – joined together in Missouri to form this association. Its mission was to devise a coordinated strategy to deal with the largest corporate monopoly of the day: Standard Oil.

There can be no doubt that that cooperative approach was essential to the government’s success in its case against Standard Oil. On April 4, 1909, the New York Times reported that the case had already amassed a record of evidence that “when stacked up makes a pile about seven feet high. It is the largest record ever taken in a lawsuit in this country.”

Imagine that: a whole seven feet high!

Our cooperation remains essential today, as we see anticompetitive practices deployed in a wide range of industries – from agriculture to pharmaceuticals to tech – practices that are similar in many ways to those that led to the founding of this association 114 years ago.

Since the beginning of this year, the Justice Department’s Antitrust Division has brought criminal charges against more than 20 individuals and companies for violation of the antitrust laws.  The division is currently preparing for 17 trials – the most in decades – against 10 companies and 33 individuals, including eight current or former corporate executives.

We have also brought civil enforcement actions to protect competition in a wide range of industries. For example, over the summer we blocked an attempted merger of two of the three biggest insurance brokers in the world – brokers that many American companies depend upon to craft and administer health and retirement benefits.

In September, we joined together with Attorneys General from across the country to challenge an unprecedented maneuver that would have further consolidated the domestic airline industry, in which four companies control over 80% of the market. The merger would have eliminated competition that is essential to ensuring that Americans – who rely on air travel every day for work, to visit family or to take vacations – can fly affordably and safely.

And just last month, we challenged an attempt by the world’s largest book publisher to acquire one of its biggest rivals and obtain unprecedented control in an already-concentrated industry.  

No matter the industry and no matter the company, the Justice Department will vigorously enforce our antitrust laws. We will aggressively protect consumers, safeguard competition and work to ensure economic fairness and opportunity for all.

I doubt that the founders of this association could have imagined that one day many of us would join together to sue a digital platform called “Google;” or that I would be participating in today’s meeting on a digital device; or even that the record in an antitrust case would ever make a pile higher than seven feet. But I am certain that they would be proud of our continued cooperation and partnership over the past century. I look forward to continuing that work together.

Since I was sworn in as Attorney General in March, I have set out three co-equal priorities that should guide the Justice Department’s work: upholding the rule of law; protecting civil rights; and keeping our country safe.

We work to uphold the rule of law by adhering to the norms that have been a part of the DNA of the Justice Department since Edward Levi’s tenure as the first post-Watergate Attorney General.

Those norms include the principled exercise of discretion. They include independence from improper influence – we must follow the facts and the law, and that is all.

And they include treating like cases alike. There cannot be one rule for friends and another for foes; one rule for the powerful and another for the powerless; one rule for the rich and another for the poor; or different rules, depending upon one's race or ethnicity.

Adhering to those norms and upholding the rule of law is how we safeguard the public trust that is essential for both our department and our democracy to succeed.

The same is true with respect to our second co-equal priority: protecting civil rights.

The Justice Department began its work in 1870 enforcing the rights promised by the Thirteenth, Fourteenth and Fifteenth Amendments and confronting the Ku Klux Klan and others who used terror and violence to keep Black Americans from exercising their civil rights.

151 years later, protecting civil rights and addressing unlawful acts of hate remain central to our mission.

That is why my first directive as Attorney General was to order a review to determine how the department could deploy all the tools at its disposal to counter the rise in hate crimes and hate incidents. As that review was nearing completion, Congress passed the COVID-19 Hate Crimes Act. In light of our review and that new law, the Justice Department is taking a number of steps to enhance our efforts to combat unlawful acts of hate. We are ensuring that the department improves hate crime reporting; increases law enforcement training and coordination at all levels of government; prioritizes community outreach; and makes better use of our civil enforcement tools. I am grateful for the leadership of Attorney General Racine and this association in making combatting hate crimes a priority. And I am grateful for your partnership in addressing the significant increase in reported hate crimes and hate incidents that we have witnessed since the beginning of the pandemic.

Alongside our enforcement efforts, we recognize that in order to uphold the promise of equal justice under law, we must also work to provide equal access to justice. In March,* the department began a comprehensive review of its access-to-justice work. As a part of that process, we heard from stakeholders nationwide – including many of your offices. In light of the initial findings of that review, we have restored a stand-alone Office for Access to Justice within the department. The office’s mission is to work in partnership with those on the front lines to identify and address the most urgent legal needs of communities across the country – a goal I look forward to working with you to advance in the days ahead.

Alongside upholding the rule of law and protecting civil rights, keeping our country safe is the Justice Department’s third co-equal priority. My approach to fulfilling this responsibility was profoundly shaped by my experience more than 26 years ago, working to bring the perpetrators of the Oklahoma City Bombing to justice.

I arrived in Oklahoma two days after the bombing. It was night, but powerful lights lit up the bombsite as if it were the middle of the day. First responders who had rushed to Oklahoma from across the country were sifting through the rubble, searching for survivors and for the dead. Everyone was crying. We did not know exactly how many people had died, but we knew that the children’s center – which had been at the front of the building – was gone.

We made a vow. We promised that we would find the perpetrators, that we would bring them to justice and that we would do so in a way that honored the Constitution. We set up a command post in a Southwestern Bell dispatch building, the windows of which had been blown out by the blast. We worked 24/7 to follow the evidence and put the case together. State and local law enforcement officers from all over Oklahoma were there, as were federal agents from all over the country. All working together. 

Oklahoma Governor Frank Keating and Oklahoma Attorney General Drew Edmondson made clear that there would be none of the typical inter-agency rivalries that weaken investigations. “Let’s just find the people who did this,” Governor Keating said. That charge guided our efforts at every step of the investigation. That cooperation is what made the investigation successful. And that commitment to working collaboratively with state and local partners is what guides my approach to law enforcement to this day.

In the 26 years since Oklahoma City, the threats our country faces continue to evolve. Today, I want to highlight five key shared challenges in which our continued cooperation is essential to keeping our country safe.

The first is countering foreign and domestic terrorism. To counter these persistent threats, the Justice Department is strengthening our 200 joint terrorism task forces, the essential hubs for counter-terrorism cooperation across all levels of government nationwide. We cannot keep our country safe without your help.

The second is addressing the rise of increasingly complex and sophisticated cyber threats. The department has launched a Ransomware and Digital Extortion Task Force, which has bolstered our cooperative efforts to hold the perpetrators of ransomware attacks responsible.

The third challenge we face together is protecting our communities from violent crime. In May, the department launched a comprehensive violent crime strategy, the key to which, again, is a close partnership with state and local law enforcement. That is why we are strengthening Project Safe Neighborhoods, a cornerstone initiative that brings together law enforcement and community stakeholders to develop solutions to pressing violent crime problems.

And that is why the department is seeking – as part of the President’s FY22 budget – over $1 billion in grant money to support state and local police departments and help them build trust with the communities they serve.

Indeed, over the years, the Justice Department’s grant programs have supported NAAG’s efforts to provide non-partisan and innovative training and resources to state attorneys general. The department’s support has ranged from funding the publication of practice manuals for investigating and prosecuting money laundering offenses, to a recent grant that will support NAGTRI’s role in establishing and operating a National Center on Forensics – dedicated to providing forensic science and legal training to state and local prosecutors.

Before I leave this topic, I want to especially thank NAAG for its leadership in advocating for the VOCA Fix Act, which the President signed into law this summer. That act enabled the Justice Department to bolster the Crime Victims Fund with more than $250 million in just the first month of its implementation — the largest monthly deposit to the fund in more than four years.

Our fourth shared challenge is keeping our country safe from the criminal networks that are fueling the overdose epidemic. In August, the department launched a nationwide law enforcement effort to address the alarming increase in the availability and lethality of fentanyl-laced pills. By the end of September, our cooperative efforts led to the seizure of 1.8 million such pills – a supply large enough to kill more 700,000 Americans.

Finally, to keep our country safe, we must work together to protect our democratic institutions from violent attack.

Yesterday marks 11 months since the January 6 attack on the Capitol, and on the brave law enforcement officers who sought to protect it. Within days of that attack, the National Association of Attorneys General, on behalf of a bipartisan coalition of 50 attorneys general, sent a letter to the Justice Department, which said: “As Americans, and those charged with enforcing the law, we must come together to condemn lawless violence, making clear that such actions will not be allowed to go unchecked.”

The Justice Department has accepted NAAG’s charge. Working together with state and local law enforcement partners nationwide, we have made hundreds of arrests of those who assaulted law enforcement and sought to interfere with a fundamental element of our democracy: the peaceful transfer of power.

Keeping the American people safe is one of the Justice Department’s most important responsibilities, and our ability to fulfill that obligation depends on our cooperative efforts with all of you. We are grateful for your partnership.

In closing, I want to thank you for inviting me to join you today. For more than 100 years, NAAG has been a vital forum for state and federal cooperation. I look forward to our continued work together on behalf of the public we all serve.

*The Justice Department’s review of its access-to-justice work commenced in May 2021

Domestic Terrorism
Updated May 18, 2022