It’s Looking Like the Department of Justice Under Biden Will Have Major Influence from Corporate Law

Jamie Gorelick, a high-powered lawyer who defended the city of Chicago after the police murder of Laquan McDonald and sits on the board of Amazon, is a case study of the influence big corporate law firms wield behind the scenes in Washington — and she has friends like Merrick Garland in high places in the Biden administration.

Merrick Garland speaks during his confirmation hearing in the Senate Judiciary Committee in Washington, DC. (Demetrius Freeman-Pool / Getty Images)

Interview by
Alex N. Press

As the Senate Judiciary Committee hearings for Merrick Garland, Joe Biden’s choice for attorney general, get started this week, it’s worth scrutinizing Garland’s ties to the corporate sector. One of these connections comes in the form of Jamie Gorelick, a partner at the powerful law firm WilmerHale and a current board member at Amazon. While she isn’t likely to get a formal appointment in the Department of Justice, Gorelick is notably close to Garland. The two have known each other since college and Gorelick has lately been talking up her closeness to the potential attorney general in recent weeks.

The Revolving Door Project, which monitors ties between business and government, recently published a report on Gorelick. The report comes at a time when there is more attention than ever on Amazon as the company fights a union drive at its warehouse in Bessemer, Alabama. As Elias Alsbergas, the report’s author, writes, “WilmerHale’s work brazenly suppressing unions and [Gorelick’s] affiliation with a monopolist like Amazon” makes her closeness with Garland particularly concerning. Given that Gorelick has been publicly discussing her ties to Garland, it is reasonable to assume that this connection will be leveraged to assist corporate clients.

Further, in this week’s hearings, Garland found time to defend corporate lawyers, who will likely have a place in the Department of Justice. As the Prospect reports, Garland said that “’Fortunately or unfortunately, the best antitrust lawyers in the country have some involvement, one way or another’ in tech.” All this, of course, is taking place under a President Biden who says strengthening the labor movement is one of his priorities.

Jacobin’s Alex N. Press spoke to Alsbergas and Max Moran, who helped compile the report, about Gorelick, WilmerHale, and how “BigLaw” undermines workers’ rights.

Alex N. Press

Who is Jamie Gorelick?

Elias Alsbergas and Max Moran

Gorelick is a partner in the government affairs wing of a “BigLaw” firm, WilmerHale. She began her career in the 1990s under the Clinton administration, at the Department of Justice. She continued her career, running the department’s criminal division into the Bush years. She defended BP at the time of the Gulf oil spill. She has defended the cities of Chicago, and Baltimore, when it comes to police killings of Laquan Mcdonald and Freddie Gray — and, in the case of Chicago, the city’s cover up. She’s also done a lot of white-collar corporate defense work for pharmaceutical companies related to the opioid crisis.

But what makes her stand out among the many other corporate lawyers who have done things equally heinous is that she is personal friends with Merrick Garland, the potential future attorney general — they’ve known each other since they were undergraduates. And we’re writing about Gorelick now because she sits on Amazon’s board of directors. What this means is that there is going to be a shadow advisor, with a deep personal relationship to the next attorney general, who is one step away from Amazon, a company which is facing deep scrutiny due to antitrust monopoly issues, not to mention its anti-union and anti-worker issues.

On top of being very close personal friends, Garland owes some of his career to Gorelick. For Garland’s first job at the Department of Justice (DOJ), he was hired by Gorelick as an assistant underneath her when she was the deputy attorney general. She often tells the story about how he chose to dispatch himself to investigate the Oklahoma City bombings during the Clinton years.

Jamie Gorelick speaks at a symposium in 2010. (Center for American Progress Action Fund / Flickr)

So the two of them not only were friends as undergrads, but his first stint at the DOJ — which he is now going to be leading — is thanks to Gorelick. There is every reason to think that he will be listening to her, that she will have a great deal of sway over his thinking, as he is leading DOJ. She’s been on a mini–press blitz within the legal press, going on some of that world’s major podcasts, to give a winking nod to potential corporate clients at WilmerHale along the lines of “we’ve got the ‘in’ with the incoming attorney general, so bring us your business and we will get you off for white-collar crime.”

Alex N. Press

What exactly is she saying about the access her relationship with Garland will give her and, by extension, her corporate clients?

Elias Alsbergas and Max Moran

She talks a great deal about their long-standing friendship and their time together during the Clinton years. It’s also important to keep in mind that one of the main ways through which BigLaw undermines public interest law and the DOJ is through these informal networks of everybody knowing everybody; everybody doing their stints on the inside and then coming out and profiting, and then going back in and then coming out, and so on.

So she has been discussing their long-standing friendship and discussing how she thinks about his approach to legal work, how she analyzes his skills as a lawyer and the way that he approaches given issues. This was taken down recently but on the WilmerHale website, they had published a blurb about these press hits she had been doing about her relationship with Merrick Garland. She’s been offering her analysis of the way that he thinks, an analysis based on their closeness.

It’s a two-way street as well. If Gorelick, and Amazon by proxy, can influence the DOJ, Gorelick also benefits from having someone on the inside who can tip her off to where prosecutorial focus will be, where the eye of the DOJ will land. This is supposition, but it’s also how it works. That’s valuable to her clients; that’s what they pay given that she’s a partner in the governmental affairs division of WilmerHale.

There are also lots of tidbits that emphasize her closeness with Garland. For example, she was shepherding Merrick Garland through the Supreme Court nomination process. But she heard about that before it was public. Apparently Garland’s wife called Gorelick before Garland’s nomination to the Supreme Court was announced. She was one of the few people who knew that this was going to happen. We don’t want to understate the duration of the relationship, especially given that one of them now sits on the board of the most powerful company that is facing scrutiny from the department that should be breaking it up.

Alex N. Press

You’ve also noted that there have been several WilmerHale appointees to the DOJ by the Biden administration.

Elias Alsbergas and Max Moran

The current acting head of DOJ civil division — which is the division of the DOJ that represents just about every other part of the federal government in legal issues — is a former WilmerHale attorney, Brian Boynton. It’s important to note that he entered DOJ after Biden was inaugurated; he was brought in specifically to fill in before they bring in a more permanent person, and he may end up being the permanent person. At WilmerHale, Boynton was the main lawyer for the for-profit college industry’s main trade group. He also represented the University of Phoenix, a company which was under investigation by DOJ and other law enforcement organizations for extremely predatory practices, most especially toward veterans and service members.

Right now, there’s a civil lawsuit by for-profit college students who have been defrauded by for-profit colleges, and they want to depose Betsy DeVos to explain why she didn’t discharge their student loans afterward. Boynton is doing everything in his power to block DeVos from having to testify. In so doing, he wrote a brief alongside the former number three within the Trump Justice Department. So you have a Biden official partnering up with a Trump official to protect Betsy DeVos. Boynton is a former WilmerHale person. He doesn’t have particular Democratic Party connections and he doesn’t have any particular ties to progressive or even liberal causes, so it seems like he got this job through his firm. That’s the only plausible explanation here, and that seems to portend a good amount of influence from WilmerHale folks.

There were WilmerHale partners on Biden’s Department of Justice agency review team. WilmerHale is going to have a say, even at the lower levels that will have less scrutiny. And again, with WilmerHale, that means, by proxy, Amazon.

Alex N. Press

Biden is very insistent that he is pro-union. For example, he immediately fired the anti-union National Labor Relations Board (NLRB) general counsel Peter Robb upon taking office. It seems contradictory to support unions through appointments at one agency and then dismantle workers’ protections through another department.

Elias Alsbergas and Max Moran

Another element is that Biden made a big point of emphasizing that he had hired Vanita Gupta and Kristen Clarke. Both of them are fantastic appointees. But every other part of the DOJ has been filled with BigLaw attorneys either from WilmerHale or from another BigLaw firm.

It’s important to look past the press releases the Biden’s team are putting out about good appointees to various parts of the federal government. The federal government is a very large institution, there are many different elements there, and the positions they don’t trumpet are often just as powerful if not more so.

Alex N. Press

What really caught my attention about Gorelick was her résumé — she’s defended so many of the villains of recent US history. When I see something like that, I wonder if this person is uniquely bad, or simply a member of a cadre of people who all take on these clients?

Elias Alsbergas and Max Moran

This is the structural path of the elite lawyer who goes to a well-heeled school on the East Coast and who then maybe begins as an associate at a BigLaw firm. If they have ambition, they will eventually revolve into a relevant government regulatory authority, which then gives them the inside knowledge that they can then sell or parlay into much more powerful and more lucrative C-suite, or partner-level positions at a BigLaw firm. That is what these groups openly advertise. Government access gives you a skill set that these organizations want, that skill set being knowing how to undermine — and in many cases, corrupt — execution of the law.

Gorelick is a very clear, concrete example because she has so many ties to awful, horrific things. For example, there was an incredible Washington Post interview with her because she was the ethics lawyer for Jared [Kushner] and Ivanka [Trump]. The Post reporter asked her, “How do you feel about people who would look at your record and criticize it?” As the Post describes it, she starts tearing up and says, “I believe in the law. I believe if you follow that system, you will get to a fair result.”

The way BigLaw lawyers justify these things to themselves is to say, “I am a neutral arbiter of the glorious institution of the law and all I am doing is coming to the defense of an institution that has chosen to employ me and whatever the law dictates comes out of this thing is clearly the right and just outcome. I am merely a vessel. I cannot be judged and I should not be judged based off my decisions.” This is completely ridiculous.

The only way that you become a multimillionaire in this type of work is if you take on big corporate clients, and big corporate clients want to undermine anything that’s going to get in the way of their bottom lines. You can and should be judged based on those career decisions. They portray themselves as if every one of their clients were an innocent person facing the death penalty, when in fact, they are hired guns.

Alex N. Press

Is there anything else people should know about either Gorelick specifically or, more generally, the dynamics of this milieu in a Democratic administration?

Elias Alsbergas and Max Moran

It’s kind of trite, but personnel is policy. That goes doubly for the people you keep around you who aren’t on the books. People like Gorelick thrive because their relationships and their work are not scrutinized. This is how Biden is able to get away with the fact that unions helped put him in the Oval Office but some of his highest-level appointees have deep long-standing relationships with people who are anathema to labor’s agenda.

Biden is clearly signaling — and in some cases, moving — in a more left-wing direction on issues including labor, the environment, and so on. He’s certainly moving to the left of where Obama was at this point in his presidency. But a great number of the people who are staffing his administration across the board are still part of the same neoliberal groups that came up under Bill Clinton. They got their start in Democratic Party politics during the Reagan years, and that is still the frame through which they view a lot of these issues.

You’re seeing some of that, maybe, a little bit, begin to change. But absent significant pressure, the path of least resistance, and the path which Biden and his people are going to take, is to bring back the same people who have been doing and failing at these jobs for the last forty years.

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Elias Alsbergas and Max Moran are both research assistants at the Revolving Door Project at the Center for Economic and Policy Research.

Alex N. Press is a staff writer at Jacobin. Her writing has appeared in the Washington Post, Vox, the Nation, and n+1, among other places.

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