Politicized Justice

It's time to restore public trust in the Department of Justice


In his zest to purge enemies in the government, Richard Nixon was so thorough that he set out to remove a "Jewish cabal" at the Bureau of Labor Statistics. President Bush and his subordinates may match Nixon for paranoia. Some of them lay awake nights wondering how to keep ideologically questionable applicants from infiltrating the Justice Department's summer internship program.

According to the department's inspector general in a report issued this week, they had some success in heading off this potential catastrophe—eliminating many candidates with subversive affiliations like Human Rights Watch and Amnesty International. But the report condemned the effort, finding that it involved official misconduct and broke the law.

Political abuses in the summer internship program may be no more than a minor threat to honest government. The same cannot be said of abuses in the hiring and firing of federal prosecutors, which the inspector general is also investigating. Back in 2006, the Justice Department abruptly dismissed nine U.S. attorneys, some apparently because they declined to prosecute certain Democrats.

One of those fired was David Iglesias of New Mexico, who was shown the door after deciding not to seek indictments in a case involving a Democratic state senator—and after getting ominous phone calls from congressional Republicans asking how the case was proceeding.

Another was Todd Graves, who had refused to file a vote fraud case against the state of Missouri. His successor filed it, but Graves was vindicated when a federal court tossed it out for lack of evidence.

That successor is now contemplating the criminal justice system from a different vantage. Bradley Schlozman, The Wall Street Journal reported recently, could be the target of a grand jury investigation stemming from possible perjury in his testimony on Capitol Hill.

He may not be the only one who will get to know federal prosecutors in an entirely new way. The New York Times disclosed that a federal grand jury has "begun to examine statements by Justice Department officials about hiring decisions in the civil rights division, where some employees said they were subject to a political litmus test."

The 2006 firings violated a long tradition of independence for U.S. attorneys, who are appointed by the president but actually work for the people. It betrayed a zeal to use government power to advance partisan purposes at the expense of justice.

It also confirmed the remark by John DiIulio, a conservative scholar who quit as head of the White House Office of Faith-Based and Community Initiatives after making an unpleasant discovery: "What you've got is everything, and I mean everything, run by the political arm."

If you want to know the source of Barack Obama's success, look no further. Republicans think they will win once Americans figure out he's more liberal than he sounds. But Obama's appeal lies less in any supposedly moderate ideology than in his rejection of a corrosive but prevalent view: Government is nothing more than partisan warfare, and may the stronger side win.

The Bush administration thinks every aspect of governance should serve the ends of the Republican Party. Obama says—and may even believe—that some matters should be above politics.

In the case of federal prosecutors, that is not a new view but an old one. U.S. attorneys are political appointees but not, traditionally, political agents. They are supposed to advance justice without fear or favor. To turn them into partisan attack dogs is to make the law merely a weapon of those in power.

Republicans may dismiss such notions as 8th-grade civics tripe, or as sour grapes from those whom the American people have wisely kept out of the White House. But it also happens to be the view of Bush's former deputy attorney general, James Comey.

In testifying before Congress about the intrusion of politics into the hiring of career prosecutors, he said, "If that was going on, that strikes at the core of what the Department of Justice is…It deprives the department of its lifeblood, which is the ability to stand up and have juries of all stripes believe what you say and have sheriffs and judges and jailers—the people we deal with—trust the Department of Justice."

Public trust was once something the department could take for granted. It would be nice if, four years from now, it is again.