Summary List PlacementJustice Department officials and the wider legal community have been facing a dilemma more titular than titillating lately: What to call the new attorney general?
It’s a question that has lived on from Democratic to Republican administrations and left a trail of awkward introductions in its wake. On the menu of options for the Justice Department leader is Mr. or Mrs. Attorney General, or simply “general,” a shorthand that has survived in spite of being grammatically incorrect.
But the question of the attorney general’s title is proving particularly vexing with Garland. After nearly a quarter-century on the powerful US Court of Appeals for the DC Circuit, the 68-year old Joe Biden appointee brings a fresh spin to the incertitude even as he provides what appears to be a safe fallback option: “Judge.”
Garland does not seem to care about his title, people familiar with his preferences told Insider. Still, protocol matters in Washington, and deciding among the titles can be tricky.
“Mr. Attorney General” or “Mrs. Attorney General” can sound stilted or wordy. While it rolls off the tongue, “general” modifies “attorney” in the title and is therefore grammatically incorrect. Depending on the audience, former Attorney General William Barr would occasionally pause in meetings to school offenders on the pitfalls of “general,” even as he jokingly relished the militaristic title.
Inside DOJ, Garland’s circle of close advisors — a group that includes former clerks from his DC Circuit tenure — continue to call him “judge.” Ahead of meetings, when asked for Garland’s preferred title, members of his staff are known to urge visitors speaking with the attorney general to go with the honorific they find most comfortable.
The attorney general appears unconcerned with the trappings of his new role, including his title. But the “judge” title is helpful for Garland’s apolitical image as he sets out to restore the independence of the Justice Department on the heels of an era in which Trump appointees intervened in prosecutions to benefit the former president’s allies, according to the people who are familiar with attorney general’s preferences.
Others hold surprisingly strong feelings about what to call an attorney general, especially one who has previously served as a judge.
Under the George W. Bush administration, two attorneys general took the helm of the Justice Department with judicial experience. One of them, Michael Mukasey, had previously served as a federal judge in Manhattan, and the other, Alberto Gonzales, had been on the Texas Supreme Court.
Both were frequently called “judge,” according to people familiar with their Justice Department tenures.
“In the UK they call the attorney general attorney,’ which struck me as a little more fitting,” Mukasey told Insider. “‘General’ can make you uneasy when there are real generals in the room, as there were on some occasions.”
Mukasey said he did not make a point of correcting those who called him “general.”
In interviews, some former officials bristled at the notion of an attorney general going by “judge,” seeing it as blurring the line between the Justice Department and the branch of government most closely and regularly engaged in checking the law enforcement agency’s power.
Others voiced a desire for a shorter honorific, “just like we have ‘justice’ for the Supreme Court justices,” said Jessie Liu, who served as the top federal prosecutor in Washington under the Trump administration.
“It feels like you should have some sort of honorific by which to call senior legal officials in the executive branch, and there isn’t a comfortable equivalent,” said Liu, who was nominated to serve as associate attorney general, the third-ranking Justice Department role.”It’s awkward.”
Under the Obama administration, then-Attorney General Eric Holder brought experience as a judge on the DC Superior Court. But Holder was also more than 15 years removed from his judgeship by the time the Senate confirmed him in 2009 to lead the Justice Department.
Holder was called “Mr. Attorney General” or just “sir” within the Justice Department, a former aide said, adding that he did not correct those who called him “general.”
The uncertainty doesn’t stop with the attorney general. Directly below the top Justice Department leader are a deputy attorney general and associate attorney general who similarly lack a quick-and-easy title by which others may pay them respect without using a mouthful of words.
Liu recalled her preparation for a podcast with then-Deputy Attorney General Rod Rosenstein, in which she was to ask questions of the second-ranking Justice Department official. Ahead of the recording, there was debate over how she should refer to Rosenstein.
“Rod” sounded disrespectful, so the group settled on “Mr. Deputy Attorney General,” Liu recalled.
It made for a higher word count.
“That was a lot to say over, and over and over again,” she said.Join the conversation about this story » NOW WATCH: Epidemiologists debunk 13 coronavirus myths