By Mike Scarcella
James Garland, the deputy chief of staff to Attorney General Eric Holder Jr., is leaving the Justice Department this month to return to Covington & Burling in Washington.
Garland, who had practiced in white-collar criminal defense, made partner at the firm in October 2008 before taking a post as a top aide to Holder, with whom he had worked in private practice. As deputy chief of staff and counselor to the attorney general, Garland has worked closely with Holder on a variety of issues.
Last week, Garland sat down with The National Law Journal to talk about his experience over the last 18 months at the Justice Department handling a portfolio that included the Criminal Division and Antitrust. He talks about challenges at the department and enforcement priorities.
“Not only has he spearheaded much of the Department's work in fighting financial fraud, enforcing our antitrust laws, and protecting intellectual property, Jim has also been instrumental in helping to reinvigorate the Department’s core missions and re-establish its reputation for independence,” Holder said. “I’m grateful for his wise counsel, as well as his friendship, his sense of humor, and his tremendous respect for the work he’s helped to advance. Jim has served the Department of Justice—and his country—well, and we will truly miss him.”
The National Law Journal: What were some of the highlights during your tenure at the Justice Department?
James Garland: The job has been an unbelievable experience on a whole host of dimensions. In my role, I wear two hats in this office. I am the deputy chief of staff, which is sort of a weird mushy position that has some administrative managerial responsibilities in the AG’s office. But then I also serve as a utility infielder for the attorney general on a host of really varied issues—from particularly sensitive matters, personnel matters, dealing with the White House, dealing with the Hill, working with our colleagues [Holder spokesman] Matt Miller and the [Office of Public Affairs]. The other hat is as counselor. As counselor, my portfolio is pretty defined. That’s been the criminal portfolio here. In that context, I work very closely with the Criminal Division, the FBI, the U.S. attorney’s offices. And then also the Antitrust portfolio.
In terms of the experiences that really stand out, it’s been an incredible life experience. The second month on the job, I flew on Air Force One with the attorney general and the president to an event. I’ve traveled literally all over the world with the AG to accompany him on meetings with his foreign counterparts. I’ve participated in the department’s decision-making process about some of the most sensitive and difficult cases that have confronted the AG during his time. There have just been almost too many amazing experiences to catalog. I described it to somebody once recently as the professional equivalent of eating candy all day. Everything is so unbelievably interesting and high stakes and consequential.
NLJ: Can you talk about some of the cases you’ve worked on?
Garland: From the criminal portfolio, just to take that piece of it, it spans an incredibly wide array of types of matters. On the white collar front I’ve been very involved in the department’s efforts to fight financial fraud. So I was very involved in the inception of the new Financial Fraud Enforcement Task Force and have worked very closely with all the relevant components and other agencies, including the SEC and U.S. attorney’s offices. The [Ted] Stevens case obviously came early on in the AG’s tenure. And then the discovery reform work that’s gone on since the Stevens case, I’ve been very involved in that. I’m the AG’s point person on all capital cases. As you may know, the attorney general personally has to weigh in on every single case in which a defendant is charged with a death penalty eligible offense—whether that’s to order the U.S. attorney not to seek the death penalty or order the U.S. attorney to seek the death penalty. So every single one of those cases that has gone before the attorney general I have helped him with. Those are incredibly difficult cases to work on. From white collar matters to death penalty matters, I’ve been very involved in the department’s efforts on the Southwest Border. We’ve been here at a time when the Mexican government has been fighting a really courageous war against the drug cartels. Working with our law enforcement components in the department and our Mexican counterparts in that effort has been incredibly rewarding and also challenging.
Another area where I’ve spent a lot of time since last December has been on the department’s effort to reinvigorate its intellectual property enforcement efforts. The administration has made a priority of intellectual property enforcement. The vice president hosted a summit meeting last December in connection with the appointment of the new IP enforcement coordinator in the White House, Victoria Espinel. Shortly after that, the AG formed a departmental IP task force. I’ve been very involved in the day-to-day work of that task force, which I think is doing a lot of exciting stuff—pushing the envelope on what we’re doing on in terms of intellectual property rights enforcement.
NLJ: How did your experience at Covington help you at the Justice Department?
Garland (at left): It wasn’t like I was learning a completely new language taking on the criminal portfolio. I’d done a lot of white collar work with the attorney general when he was in private practice at Covington and with other lawyers in the Covington white collar practice. But it had obviously only been from the defense side. It was definitely a learning experience to come in and, as the folks in the Criminal Division say, put on the white hat. It was important for me to be very upfront with all the prosecutors with whom I work in the department and in the Criminal Division about the fact I’d never been a prosecutor—that I don’t know what it’s like to take a witness into the grand jury or do the other things that prosecutors routinely do in investigating and bringing cases. I think at the same time I had a perspective as a former white collar defense lawyer that was valuable. I understood the language. In the role that I play in this office, my job is not to second guess the prosecutors. It’s not to say, Why aren’t you doing it this way? Or to be the Monday morning quarterback. My job is try to understand the basis for their decisions and to convey the information to the attorney general so that he can understand in ways that are necessary for him to be up to speed. Ninety-nine percent of criminal cases the department brings never come to this office. Only the really significant, difficult, problematic cases come to the attorney general. It has been an incredibly professionally enriching experience for me to learn how our prosecutors, how areshould this be “our”? law enforcement agencies, work these cases. Frankly, every day I came into the office I was blown away by about how talented the department’s prosecutors are. These people are truly gifted and committed public servants. That, more than anything, is what I am going to miss about this job. The career prosecutors, the career lawyers in this department, are simply extraordinary. You can’t really appreciate that until you experience it on the inside.
NLJ: How often do you get late calls from the attorney general?
Garland: The middle of the night phone calls are typically for the AG but they are people who don’t want to wake up the AG so they call me instead. The difference between private firm life, for me at least, and this job, was the predictability and control over my schedule. In this job, the schedule is so crisis driven, so emergency driven, you don’t have the ability in a real practical sense to plan your life, to plan your day. The first few months on the job I would go through this sort of dance with my wife. I would call her as I was planning to leave the office. Honey, I’m leaving the office. It’s 6:45. I’m heading out. And then invariably I would get a call. The White House would have reached out to the attorney general. Something would have happened. I would have to say, sorry, I’m not going to make it home. At some point, I think [my wife] just said, you know what, don’t even worry about calling. It’s OK. Just come home when you come home because it’s better to not get the expectation that you are going to be home. That’s sort of the most personally difficult part of the job. Your life is not your own. The role the attorney general plays and the needs that he has trump really everything.
NLJ: Why are you leaving now?
Garland: It’s very bittersweet. I have three young kids, a 4 year old, a 2 year old and a two month old. There’s a bit of financial imperative obviously. But almost more than that is the pace. The pace of this job is like nothing I’ve ever known. It’s not sustainable for the long run with a family. The person who gets that most of all is the attorney general. He was supportive of my decision.
NLJ: How did you tell the AG about your plans?
Garland: There is some debate about that. I would date it back to the fall, the late fall of last year, when we learned my wife was expecting her third child. Over the course of about 48 hours, my wife and I both came down with the swine flu. There was a lot in the press about how swine flu was particularly dangerous for pregnant women. It turns out that the attorney general’s wife, Dr. Sharon Malone, is my wife’s obstetrician. We had to place a call to Dr. Malone at home. I had to come clean with the AG when I did that. He sort of quickly said, ‘I hope you feel better. Does this mean your time is limited?’ We had a more fulsome conversation about my plans after that.
NLJ: Any words of advice for the incoming deputy chief of staff?
Garland: The job is all about juggling. The number of issues and variety of issues that come to the attorney is so enormous that you can’t go deep on all of them. You have to be able to rely on the people throughout the department, who are frankly the world’s best lawyers, to do their jobs and to get you the information that you need and for you to take that information and synthesize it into a very concise format for the AG to digest. You have to let go of the impulse that I think every good lawyer has—to become an expert on a particular case, a particular policy dispute, a particular issue. You have to accept that you are never really going to know the most about something. That, for me, was a challenge. The caveat to that is you need to be comfortable being a mile wide and an inch deep—except when you need to be a mile deep. That’s unfair but it’s a fact of life. You have to develop a sixth sense to know when the AG is going to be really pressed to get into the weeds on something. When you see that, you need to then make sure that he has all the information and all the background. That’s a challenge. That’s a real challenge.
NLJ: You are from Columbus, Ohio. Bengals fan? Browns?
Garland: I love the Browns. I love the Bengals. But I am really all about the Ohio State Buckeyes. So I am eagerly awaiting this coming season when I think the Buckeyes will start out ranked second or third in the polls. We’ll see if they can get another national title under Jim Tressel.