The Politics of Judicial Interpretation: The Federal Courts, Department of Justice, and Civil Rights, 1866-1876

By Robert J. Kaczorowski | Go to book overview

5 The Department of Justice
and the Retreat from Civil
Rights Enforcement,
1872–1873

Before his appointment as attorney general, George H. Williams represented the frontier state of Oregon in the House of Representatives. As a congressman, he earned a reputation for crass partisanship rather than for judiciousness and commitment to principle one might expect of the chief legal officer of the United States. His appointment as attorney general in late 1871 thus fueled speculation that President Grant was gearing up for the forthcoming presidential election. Indeed, Grant's biographer concluded that the change in attorneys general was a political maneuver intended to satisfy a Pacific Coast demand for cabinet representation. Further, this change encouraged Southern Democratic Conservatives who sought to bargain politically with the president for leniency toward the South.1

The new attorney general left no doubt, however, that he fully supported his predecessor's policy of civil rights enforcement and that he intended to continue it. He informed federal legal officers that

[t]he Department has no intention of abandoning proceedings against any
persons who may have rendered themselves answerable to the laws of the
United States…. Wherever parties have been charged with crimes it is the
wish of the Department that the District Attorney…vigorously prosecute
them to a conviction. It is my intention as far as it may be in my power to see
that the laws of the United States are faithfully carried out and the parties
offending against them properly punished.

Williams expressed to District Judge Busteed his belief that vigorous federal civil rights enforcement would restore peace, law, and order in the South. Consequently, he prodded the foot-dragging United States attorney in Atlanta, Georgia, John D. Pope: “I am sure it is only necessary to apprise you of such criminal acts to cause them to be inquired into and prosecuted with diligence and earnestness.” He even authorized United States Attorney Minnis to assume the prosecution of certain cases in which Alabama state authorities already had begun to bring defendants to justice.2

-80-

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