Justice Leader's Job: Renew A Battered Agency The Justice Department is emerging from what many have called its most tumultuous period in decades. A new attorney general will have to restore the department's credibility and work to counter perceptions that law enforcement decisions have become politicized.
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Justice Leader's Job: Renew A Battered Agency

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Justice Leader's Job: Renew A Battered Agency

Justice Leader's Job: Renew A Battered Agency

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This is Morning Edition from NPR News. I'm Renee Montagne.


And I'm Ari Shapiro. Dear Mr. President-elect, a lot of people have advice for you right now about what you should do with Iran, health care, the environment, and pretty much everything else on your agenda.

MONTAGNE: Over the next month, we'll try to sort through that advice in an occasional series called "Memo to the President."

SHAPIRO: Today, some suggestions about what you should do with the department that I cover when I'm not filling in on Morning Edition. It's the U.S. Department of Justice. This is the Justice Department's cavernous Great Hall. It's where Attorney General John Ashcroft famously covered up a bare-breasted statue, it's where Attorney General Alberto Gonzales addressed Justice Department employees before resigning in disgrace, and where Attorney General Michael Mukasey spoke to Justice Department employees about turning the institution around. In this hall, a few months from now, a new attorney general will take the stage and address Justice Department employees for the first time.

Senator PATRICK LEAHY (Democrat, Vermont; Chairman, Senate Judiciary Committee): I think they should say, we are the Department of Justice, and emphasize the word justice.

SHAPIRO: Vermont Democrat Patrick Leahy chairs the Senate Judiciary Committee. He says a new attorney general needs to stand up and say, we are here so that every single American can look at us and say, I know that my rights are protected no matter who I am, rich or poor, Democrat or Republican.

Senator LEAHY: And then I think I'd 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 today.

SHAPIRO: This used to be stuff people could take for granted. Not anymore. Danielle Brian is executive director of the Project on Government Oversight.

Ms. DANIELLE BRIAN (Executive Director, Project on Government Oversight): When you look at the whole federal government, one could argue that the Justice Department is sort of the backbone. And that spine has really been injured.

SHAPIRO: Former Justice Department Inspector General Michael Bromwich goes even further.

Mr. MICHAEL BROMWICH (Former Inspector General, Justice Department): I think the Department of Justice has been through some of the roughest passages that it's ever had to face over the last four years.

SHAPIRO: Last year, more than a dozen top officials resigned in a scandal over U.S. attorney firing. 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 have accused the Justice Department under Alberto Gonzales of becoming a political arm of the White House. And while raw politics has disappeared under Attorney General Mukasey in the last year, he's largely viewed as a caretaker unwilling to challenge the White House. So how does a new attorney general restore the department's reputation?

Ms. ALICE FISHER (Former Assistant Attorney General for the Criminal Division, Justice Department): Listen to the career employees of the Department of Justice.

SHAPIRO: Alice Fisher ran the department's criminal division for almost three years under President Bush.

Ms. FISHER: I saw one of the - or two of the other Cabinet secretaries set up Web sites to communicate with the employees of those agencies. I think that's a great idea. But there needs to be communication across the board at every level of the department.

SHAPIRO: For the last eight years, career employees have complained that in a break with previous policies, they were shut out of the decision-making process. That's particularly true in the Civil Rights Division. Bud Cummins of Arkansas was one of the fired U.S. attorneys.

Mr. BUD CUMMINS (Attorney): Frankly, 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.

SHAPIRO: President-elect Obama used to be a constitutional law professor, so he has a deep interest in justice issues. Jamie Gorelick was deputy attorney general in the Clinton administration. She says the new boss has to improve morale. She'd like to see the next attorney general remind attorneys that they have a higher calling beyond just winning cases.

Ms. JAMIE GORELICK (Former Deputy Attorney General): I would hearken back to the words of former attorney general and later Justice Jackson, who gave one of the most moving and memorable speeches about the role of departmental attorneys, particularly the United States attorneys, in ensuring that justice is done.

SHAPIRO: In 1940, Robert Jackson spoke to all the country's U.S. attorneys. He said, "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." You can take a deeper look at the issues and challenges facing the president-elect on our Web site, npr.org.

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