The Most Political Justice Department Ever: A Survey

Article excerpt

The U.S. Department of Justice is the government agency directly responsible for performing the president's central constitutional mission to "take care" that the laws of the United States are faithfully executed. Those laws have come to reach into every aspect of American life, from jobs, environment, civil rights, elections, taxation, communications and antitrust, to tens of thousands of federal criminal laws covering everything from kidnapping to poultry inspection.

The Justice Department oversees several of the most feared and potentially intrusive federal agencies, including the Federal Bureau of Investigation, the Drug Enforcement Administration, the Immigration and Naturalization Service, and the Bureau of Prisons. The department's prosecutors have relatively unfettered discretion to bring down the full force, of the government's investigative and prosecutors have relatively unfettered discretion to bring citizens. the full force of the government's investigative and prosecutorial powers on private citizens.

The Department of Justice thus both implements and symbolizes the rule of law in the United States. It is imperative, therefore, that its immense powers be exercised carefully, even-handedly, and with restraint. Abuse or misuse of those powers has devastating and lasting consequences, not just for the individuals directly affected, but, more fundamentally, for the nation's integrity and for the confidence that citizens must have in their gov ernment if they are to honor and respect its laws and institutions.

The department and its officials traditionally have been held to a standard of independence and non-partisanship not expected at other federal agencies. While the president has the prerogative to set broad law enforcement policies, and occasionally to participate directly in those DOJ decisions that influence the nation's direction and priorities, the president must never interject his personal or partisan political impulses into individual DOJ decisions. And it is one of the most important responsibilities of the attorney general to insist that the line between national policy and personal advantage never be crossed. Whenever that barrier has been breached in the past, whenever politics has permeated the decision-making or the atmosphere at the Department of Justice, as occurred in Watergate, the consequences for the nation have been grave.

Janet Reno has now served seven and one-half years as attorney general, longer than all but one of her predecessors, an individual Who held office in the early nineteenth century when there was no Department of justice, when the attorney general's staff was tiny, and the responsibilities of the office were quite limited. To put her tenure in perspective, Richard Kleindienst, Elliot Richardson, William Saxbe, Ed Levi, and Griffin Bell held the position of attorney general in the 1970's. Janet Reno has served longer than all of them combined. No person in American history has held more law enforcement authority for such a long period.

It may be some time before an authoritative judgment is made concerning Janet Reno's stewardship of the Department of Justice. Much of the story remains concealed behind the iron doors of Main Justice in Washington, and some of it may never be known, especially if Janet Reno is succeeded by an Al Gore Department of Justice. Bill Clinton's worst nightmare is a George W. Bush-appointed attorney general who will have the courage to pry open the secrets that the Clinton administration has kept during its corrupt reign and a Congress that will keep the Justice Department shredding machines out of operation between November and the inauguration.

But the public record already tells enough to portray an unattractive story of a Clinton political takeover of the Justice Department. There is ample evidence that cannot be ignored that, from the beginning, Janet Reno allowed her department to be overwhelmed by partisan politics and that she readily submitted to the personal and private interests of President Clinton and his partner in running the department, First Lady Hillary Rodham Clinton. …