The imperative of Justice Department independence from political influence has deep roots. After the Watergate scandal, Attorney General Griffin Bell sought to reestablish Justice’s independence and ensure that the department would be “recognized by all citizens as a neutral zone, in which neither favor nor pressure nor politics is permitted to influence the administration of the law.” The nation had lost faith in the Justice Department and the rule of law, so during the Carter administration Bell instituted strict limits on communications between the White House and Justice to prevent any “outside interference in reaching professional judgment on legal matters.”
Since Bell’s tenure, attorneys general in Democratic and Republican administrations alike have issued largely similar policies to adhere to the course Bell mapped for the department to live up to its promise of impartial justice. All have observed a “wall” between the White House and the Justice Department on criminal cases and investigations. While it is appropriate to communicate about administration policies and priorities, discussion with the White House about specific criminal cases has traditionally been off-limits. Presidents and department leaders from both parties have recognized that for case decisions to have legitimacy, they must be made without political influence — whether real or perceived. Implementation of these restrictions has not always been perfect, but the department’s independence has remained honored and unquestioned.
While the policy is ostensibly still in effect, it is a hollow ode to bygone days. From virtually the moment he took office, President Trump has attempted to use the Justice Department as a cudgel against his enemies and as a shield for himself and his allies. He ran off Jeff Sessions after Sessions’s recusal in the Russia investigation rendered Sessions useless to protect him. The president has attempted to order up investigations of his perceived political enemies and enlist the department to protect his friends. With every blow, the wall of Justice independence has wobbled a bit more. This week, it teetered on the verge of collapse. [Continue reading…]