President-elect Joe Biden could announce his pick for attorney general this week, and former Massachusetts Gov. Deval Patrick is among the reported contenders.
If nominated, Patrick would confront some of the same challenges he faced when President Clinton tapped him to lead the Justice Department's civil rights division in the mid-1990s.
Tense Political Climate
To understand Patrick's history with the Justice Department, it helps to go back to Feb. 1, 1994, when Clinton convened a news conference at the White House.
"Today, I am proud to nominate Deval Patrick to be assistant attorney general for civil rights," Clinton said. "I believe he is uniquely qualified to lead this division in this decade."
By the dictionary definition of "uniquely," this wasn't really true. In fact, Clinton had preferred more experienced civil rights attorneys for the job. But conservatives rejected his first selection, and members of the Congressional Black Caucus opposed the second.
Enter Patrick, who was 37 at the time. He may have been the third choice, but he also had something the others didn't.
"Deval has a very special way about him," said Ted Shaw, who worked with Patrick at the NAACP Legal Defense and Education Fund in 1980s. "He's not someone who is picking fights or is philosophically cantankerous."
Patrick's even keel helped alleviate concerns on the right and left. In a tense political environment where others had faltered, he earned unanimous approval by the Senate.
In today's political environment, Patrick's record of bipartisan support could make him an attractive nominee — especially if Republicans hold on to their Senate majority.
GOP lawmakers have clashed with others who are reportedly in the running, like former Acting Attorney General Sally Yates. Some decried Yates' refusal to enforce President Trump's travel ban on several majority-Muslim countries in 2017. Her contention that the ban was unlawful would be sure to resurface in a confirmation 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's Sen. Doug Jones of Alabama, who has a strong social justice record but might nevertheless disappoint some Democrats.
"I prefer a Black attorney general with a background in dealing with civil rights and voting rights," the 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 didn't respond to an interview request.
If Patrick returns to the Justice Department, he'll once again go to Washington in the wake of highly publicized incidents of police violence against Black people.
"Whether we're talking about Rodney King in the '90s or we're talking about Breonna Taylor in 2020, what we have to acknowledge is that these cases are highly racialized," said Tanisha Sullivan, president of the NAACP Boston Branch. "If you look at the parallels between the mid-90s and now, in 2020, unfortunately they are there. And they speak to the continued issues that we have, specifically when it comes to policing."
Current Attorney General William Barr was also AG at the time of Rodney King's beating by Los Angeles police. Sullivan says the Justice Department, under his leadership, has treated police brutality as an occasional series of isolated episodes rather than a systemic problem that disproportionately affects people of color. She hopes Patrick or another Biden nominee 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 credentials and another quality.
"Just as important — maybe even more important — he's got the right temperament," Murray said. "He's somebody who thinks, doesn't react with gut emotion. He gathers all the facts and makes decisions accordingly."
Among the decisions for the next attorney general will be whether to pursue federal charges against the police officers who killed Breonna Taylor and George Floyd.
This segment aired on December 14, 2020.