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Protecting DOJ Independence

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Protecting the Department of Justice from political interference

Senators Sheldon Whitehouse, Kamala Harris, and Richard Blumenthal, and Representative Hakeem Jeffries have proposed legislation to help restore the longstanding norm of Department of Justice (DOJ) independence (S. 1915 / H.R. 3380). The Security from Political Interference in Justice Act of 2019 would introduce transparency into the relationship between the White House and the DOJ, and accountability for inappropriate contact among the two offices.

The bill is supported by a bipartisan coalition of think tanks, advocacy, and grassroots organizations dedicated to protecting the rule of law and the fair administration of justice, including the Brennan Center for Justice, Common Cause, Citizens for Responsibility and Ethics in Washington, Niskanen Center, Project on Government Oversight, Protect Democracy, Public Citizen, Republicans for the Rule of Law, Stand Up Republic, and Tech Freedom.

The Department of Justice’s stated mission is to “ensure fair and impartial administration of justice for all Americans.” This essential function, which goes to the heart of public trust in the federal government, can be satisfied only when the Department operates free of political interference.

“Weaponizing the power to investigate, prosecute, and enforce the law against political opponents or for personal gain is a dangerous misuse of the presidency,” says Jessica Marsden, counsel for Protect Democracy. “It is critical for our democracy that Congress prevent the executive from eroding DOJ’s independence through political interference. This legislation is a straightforward, commonsense approach to shining light on such abuse.”

The Security from Political Interference in Justice Act of 2019 would codify the historical norm of DOJ independence from the White House and, specifically, would:

  • Require the White House and the Department of Justice to log all communications they have with one another pertaining to specific cases or investigations that DOJ might undertake.
  • Share those logs with Congress, the Department’s Office of the Inspector General (OIG), and the Office of Professional Responsibility (OPR). OIG and OPR would be required to review the logs for inappropriate communications and, if any are found, identify those communications for Congress.

Presidents of both parties have been criticized strongly for violating the norm of DOJ independence, such as when President Nixon said publicly that Charles Manson should get the death penalty or when President Clinton called for the death penalty for the Oklahoma City bombers in the early days of the investigation. But this criticism has not stopped presidents from inappropriately pressuring the agency. Under President Trump, that norm of DOJ independence has further deteriorated. In just one example, President Trump pressured DOJ to block the merger of AT&T and Time Warner because of his dislike of CNN, which is owned by Time Warner.

In 2007, the Senate Judiciary Committee considered nearly identical legislation and reported it to the full Senate on a bipartisan 14-2 vote.

For more information, click here.

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