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Justice Department won't pursue contempt charges against Garland

The Justice Department said it will not pursue a criminal cases against U.S. Attorney General Merrick Garland.
Chip Somodevilla
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The Justice Department said it will not pursue a criminal cases against U.S. Attorney General Merrick Garland.

The Justice Department has declined to pursue a criminal case against Attorney General Merrick Garland, just days after House Republicans voted to hold him in contempt for defying a congressional subpoena for audiotapes of President Biden.

Prosecutors said Garland enjoys a legal shield from prosecution because Biden asserted executive privilege over the tapes last month. The decision means the case is now closed.

That’s in line with how the Justice Department handled two previous episodes where congressional majorities advanced contempt resolutions against Garland’s predecessors, Attorneys General Eric Holder and Bill Barr.

"Consistent with this longstanding position and uniform practice, the Department has determined that the responses by Attorney General Garland to the subpoenas issued by the Committees did not constitute a crime, and accordingly the Department will not bring the congressional contempt citation before a grand jury or take any other action to prosecute the Attorney General," Carlos Uriarte, the assistant attorney general, said in a letter to Speaker Mike Johnson.

Garland voiced disappointment over the June 12 vote, largely along party lines, writing that the House of Representatives “turned a serious congressional authority into a partisan weapon.”

“Today’s vote disregards the constitutional separation of powers, the Justice Department’s need to protect its investigations, and the substantial amount of information we have provided to the Committees,” Garland added.

The recordings feature hours of interviews between Biden and a special counsel investigating how classified information came to be found at Biden’s home and academic office. That prosecutor, Robert Hur, ended the probe with no charges, reasoning that jurors could view Biden as a “sympathetic, well-meaning elderly man with a poor memory.”

The Republican-led House Judiciary and Oversight Committees demanded the audiotapes of the Biden interviews. The Justice Department handed over written transcripts and correspondence with Biden’s lawyers. And Hur testified before lawmakers for about five hours. But DOJ refused to give up the recordings.

Garland told reporters the releasing the tapes could impede cooperation with sensitive investigations of the White House in the future and said there was no “legitimate” legislative reason for Congress to request them. Lawyers in the Justice Department’s Office of Legal Counsel agreed.

But House Speaker Mike Johnson, R-La., said “it is up to Congress—not the executive branch—to determine what materials it needs to conduct its own investigations and there are consequences for refusing to comply with lawful congressional subpoenas.”

The conservative-leaning Heritage Foundation and several media organizations have filed a separate lawsuit to gain access to the Biden audiotapes. But it’s not clear whether that case will reach resolution before the presidential election in November.

Copyright 2024 NPR

Carrie Johnson is a justice correspondent for the Washington Desk.