Justice Leader's Job: Renew A Battered Agency

Memo To The President. CREDIT: iStockphoto.com i i
iStockphoto.com
Memo To The President. CREDIT: iStockphoto.com
iStockphoto.com

Memo To The President

In this occasional series, NPR will follow the transition from one administration to another through a series of stories, conversations, commentaries and essays that will outline the many issues and challenges facing the new occupant of the White House. From a broken military to a troubled economy to a National Park Service in need of a major overhaul — we'll provide the briefing paper, the options and the obstacles.

In a few months, a new attorney general will stand in the Justice Department's Great Hall and address department employees for the first time.

He or she will be standing in the place where Attorney General John Ashcroft famously covered up a bare-breasted statue, where Attorney General Alberto Gonzales addressed employees before resigning in disgrace, and where Attorney General Michael Mukasey spoke about turning the institution around.

Senate Judiciary Committee Chairman Patrick Leahy (D-VT) would like the new attorney general to state, "We are the Department of Justice." "And," Leahy said, "Emphasize the word Justice."

Leahy says a new attorney general needs to tell Justice employees, "We are here so that every single American can look at us and say, 'I know that my rights are protected; I know that the laws are protected; I know that I'm not going to be treated any differently whether I'm rich or poor, whether I'm a Democrat or a Republican.' "

"Then," Leahy said, "I think I would go one step further, which would be to say to everybody there: 'Anybody who is unwilling to be impartial to Americans, leave the Department of Justice now.' "

These used to be principles people could take for granted at the Justice Department, but that's no longer the case.

Danielle Brian, executive director of the Project on Government Oversight, describes the Justice Department as the backbone of the federal government. "And that spine has really been injured," she said.

Former Justice Department Inspector General Michael Bromwich goes even further, saying the agency has seen "some of the roughest passages that it's ever had to face over the last four years."

Last year, more than a dozen top officials resigned in a scandal over the firings of U.S. attorneys. Reports by the current inspector general showed that people broke the law by hiring career officials based on their loyalty to the Republican Party.

Members of Congress accused the Justice Department under Gonzales of becoming a political arm of the White House.

And while raw politics has disappeared under Mukasey in the past year, he is largely viewed as a caretaker unwilling to challenge the White House. The challenge for the next attorney general is to restore the department's reputation.

Alice Fisher, who ran the Justice Department's criminal division for almost three years under President Bush, believes the key is to listen to the career employees.

"I saw one or two of the other Cabinet secretaries set up Web sites to communicate with the employees of those agencies," Fisher said. "I think that was a great idea. But there needs to be communication across the board, at every level of the department."

For the past eight years, career employees have complained that they were shut out of the decision-making process, a break with previous policies. That's been particularly true in the Civil Rights Division.

Bud Cummins of Arkansas was one of the fired U.S. attorneys. "Frankly," he said, "the problems that occurred were so outrageously inept and ham-handed that the only real fix to restore the credibility of the department is going to be a change of administration."

President-elect Obama used to be a constitutional law professor, so he has a personal interest in Justice issues.

Jamie Gorelick was the deputy attorney general in the Clinton administration. She says the new boss has to improve morale. And she would like to see the next attorney general remind attorneys that they have a higher calling beyond just winning cases.

"I would harken back to the words of former attorney general and later Justice Jackson," Gorelick said, "who gave one of the most moving and memorable speeches about the role of departmental attorneys, particularly United States attorneys, in ensuring that justice is done."

In 1940, Robert Jackson spoke to all the country's U.S. attorneys.

He said, "While you are being diligent, strict and vigorous in law enforcement, you can also afford to be just. Although the government technically loses its case, it has really won if justice has been done."

Jackson concluded, "The citizen's safety lies in the prosecutor who tempers zeal with human kindness, who seeks truth and not victims, who serves the law and not factional purposes, and who approaches his task with humility."

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