Department of Justice Independence

Department of Justice Sign

Independent law enforcement is a hallmark of a democracy rooted in the rule of law. This principle recognizes that the government’s law enforcement powers can be a grave threat to democracy if they are abused by authoritarian-minded presidents to punish enemies, shield themselves from accountability for wrongdoing, or interfere in the conduct of free and fair elections. Following the Nixon administration’s abuses of the Justice Department during the Watergate era, Department leaders established norms aimed at shielding it from political interference by the White House in specific law enforcement matters.

Presidents and officials from both political parties largely observed these norms until President Trump proclaimed that he had an “absolute right to do what I want to do with the Department of Justice.” Trump put these words into action by obstructing Special Counsel Mueller’s investigation of Russian interference in the 2016 election, demanding prosecutions of specific individuals and the dismissal of prosecutions against others, and pardoning allies. Trump’s abuse of his law enforcement powers culminated in his attempts to use the Department to overturn the results of the 2020 election. 

Understanding that law enforcement free from real or perceived political interference underpins all of our other freedoms, Protect Democracy engages in policy advocacy and litigation aimed at restoring the norms eroded by the Trump administration, building stronger guardrails to prevent law enforcement abuses we have seen from both political parties over time, and imposing the accountability necessary to ensure the fair administration of justice.  Authoritarians regularly prosecute and jail their opponents, using criminal investigations as a tool for political vengeance, and offer favors for political allegiance. Backsliding democratic countries have witnessed such threats, and offer a warning sign for our own democracy. That is why we will continue to advocate to make sure that American law enforcement agencies maintain their independence from the president and remain accountable to the Constitution.   

Strategies for Independence

Protect Democracy uses integrated advocacy to protect and promote DOJ independence, including legal and policy research and analysis, litigation, legislative and related advocacy, and communications strategies.

Governments that use the enormous power of law enforcement to punish their enemies and reward their allies are not constitutional republics; they are autocracies.

Statement of 2,600+ DOJ Alumni, February 16, 2021

Related Content

Current United States Authoritarian Threat Index score: 2.1/5 Significant Threat

The Score Breakdown

  • Executive Constraints 1.8/5 • Low Threat