Attorney General Merrick Garland is sworn in during a House Judiciary Committee oversight hearing Thursday on Capitol Hill. Pool Photo by Greg Nash/UPI | License Photo
Oct. 21 (UPI) -- Attorney General Merrick Garland was peppered with questions on a wide range of subjects in early questioning by Republicans and Democrats during his appearance in front of the House Judiciary Committee Thursday.
The one-time Supreme Court nominee declined to answer questions about pending or potential investigations but made clear he will defend the First Amendment and apply the law evenly regardless of political standing.
Garland said he would "apply the facts and the law and make a decision" if he were to consider a criminal contempt referral for former Trump White House adviser Steve Bannon. The House voted Thursday afternoon in favor of a resolution finding Bannon in criminal contempt for refusing to comply with a subpoena to testify to a committee investigating the Jan. 6 attack on the U.S. Capitol.
The Justice Department has full, independent authority to decide whether to prosecute the criminal contempt charge.
Prosecutors have charged more than 600 people in the attack on the U.S. Capitol on Jan. 6. Garland said his department will continue to pursue justice in the case.
He said the incident was an intolerable assault "not only on the Capitol and the brave law enforcement personnel who sought to protect it but also on a fundamental element of our democracy: the peaceful transfer of power."
Garland has been the target of criticism from some Democratic lawmakers who feel that the department could be doing more to investigate and punish attempts to keep Donald Trump in power after he lost the election last fall.
"To date, 55 of 56 FBI field offices have opened investigations," Garland said. "Citizens from across the country have provided more than 200,000 digital media tips, and the FBI continues to request the public's assistance in identifying individuals sought in connection to the Jan. 6 attack. And in less than 300 days, approximately 650 defendants have been arrested in nearly all 50 states."
Committee Chair Jerry Nadler, D-N.Y., praised Garland and encouraged him to keep moving forward with prosecutions.
"I ask only that you continue to follow the facts and the law where they lead -- because although you have rightly brought hundreds of charges against those who physically trespassed in the Capitol, the evidence suggests that you will soon have some hard decisions to make about those who organized and incited the attack in the first place," Nadler said.
When asked by Republicans about some parents being investigated for their actions at school board meetings over the coronavirus restrictions and critical race theory, Garland forcefully said he believed in the First Amendment and parents have the right to voice their opinion at such meetings as they wish.
Garland went further, saying it would be a misuse of the Patriot Act if it is used to prevent parents and others from speaking out at such meetings to complain about such restrictions.
In response to a rise nationwide in harassment, intimidation and threats of violence directed toward school administrators, board members, teachers and staff over COVID-19 restrictions, Garland directed the FBI to address such incidents.
"[Complants] are totally protected by the First Amendment," Garland said about high-charged school board meetings. "True threats of violence are not protected by the First Amendment. Those are the things we're worried about here. We are not investigating peaceful protests or parent involvement at school board meetings."
Garland said in his opening statement that China, Russia, Iran and North Korea have all cyber operations to target U.S. vaccines and research.
He said the countries have "compromised our networks and supply chains, steal our intellectual property and sow divisions to undermine our democracy. At the same time, cybercriminals have launched ransomware attacks that have targeted our critical infrastructure, businesses, schools, hospitals, and medical centers, putting patients' lives at an increased risk amidst the worst pandemic in more than a century."
He said the FBI is currently investigating more than 100 different types of ransomware that have victimized scores of individuals and businesses.
Garland is the sole witness at the oversight hearing, at which he was expected to address a range of issues, including Texas' controversial abortion ban, civil rights and efforts to restrict voting rights.
Garland has said previously that his department will do everything in its power to block the Texas law, which bans all abortions as soon as a fetal heartbeat is detectable, which can be as soon as six weeks.
The law, which relies on the public to enforce, effectively uses a bounty system in which ordinary citizens can collect at least $10,000 for successfully turning someone in for seeking an abortion. It's mainly this provision of the law that's made it difficult for opposition groups to get it blocked in court.
Earlier this week, the Supreme Court agreed to an expedited hearing for abortion clinics' challenge to the law. Also this week, Garland's department again asked the high court to block it.
Republicans on the panel could press Garland Thursday on a range of issues, including rising crime rates in major U.S. cities and the legality of Biden's vaccination mandates.
Sgt. Aquilino Gonell of the U.S. Capitol Police wipes away tears Tuesday as he testifies before members of the Select Committee investigating the January 6 attack on the U.S. Capitol. Pool Photo by Jim Lo Scalzo/UPI | License Photo