Legal professionals vow to stand against DOJ political interference

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Three former American Bar Association presidents, as well as several former judges and state and local bar leaders, are offering support to any Justice Department officials who resign or speak out against evidence of politicization in the waning weeks of the 2020 presidential election.

“The public and these professionals should know that if they stand up to such misuse — whether via resignation, public statements, or other forms of expressive dissent — they will have broad support in the legal profession, whose best traditions they will be upholding,” the attorneys and judges wrote in an open letter signed by 600 attorneys, judges and DOJ alumni issued Thursday.

The letter is meant to lend backing to officials like James Herbert, a veteran assistant U.S. attorney from Massachusetts, who wrote a scathing letter assailing Attorney General William Barr in the Boston Globe last month, as well as prosecutors who have withdrawn from cases amid concerns about political interference.

The attorneys, writing under the banner of Lawyers Defending American Democracy, include retired federal District Court Judge Fern Smith, a Ronald Reagan appointee, and retired Appeals Court Judge Thomas Vansakie, a Barack Obama appointee, and retired federal District Court Judge Thelton Henderson, a Jimmy Carter appointee. The signatories also include former American Bar Association presidents Laurel Bellows, Bob Hirshon and Tommy Wells.

Former heads of the Texas, Illinois, Boston and Washington, D.C., bar signed on as well.

The lawyers say Barr has enabled President Donald Trump’s false claims about alleged voter fraud, raised the specter of releasing politically explosive documents in the heat of the 2020 presidential campaign and routinely intervened in cases affecting allies of the president.

“We support DOJ attorneys and personnel who stand by their oaths and the Department of Justice’s duty to do justice for the public by not participating in partisan misuse of the DOJ,” they write. “They honor the rule of law, our profession, and the country as we face this crucial test for our democracy.“

Barr has rejected the notion that he has turned the Justice Department into political weapon for Trump. But in remarks in September, he made a case for rethinking the role of politics in the Justice Department, describing it as an essential form of accountability for an agency ultimately managed by an elected president and his handpicked appointees.

“The Justice Department is not a praetorian guard that watches over society impervious to the ebbs and flows of politics,” Barr said in a Sept. 16 speech at Hillsdale College.

In his speech, Barr said the actions of political appointees carry greater weight than those taken by career employees, who “simply do not possess” the demorcratic legitimacy conferred upon those more senior officials.

But Barr’s detractors say he’s eroding DOJ’s traditional independence and arms-length relationship from politics.

“Presiding over a federal courtroom for 37 years, I relied on a nonpartisan, independent Justice Department,” said Henderson, the retired federal district judge appointed by Carter. “I fear that under Attorney General Barr, that trust has been shredded.”

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