This commentary was originally featured in The Hill on June 21, 2017
Thomas Jefferson wrote, “the most sacred of the duties of government [is] to do equal and impartial justice for all its citizens.” Yet, actions taken by United States Department of Justice during the past administration tarnished the reputation of this historic federal agency. Recent steps taken by Attorney General Jeff Sessions seek to restore DOJ to its mission “to ensure fair and impartial administration of justice for all Americans.”
Last year, United States District Judge Andrew Hanen resorted to the unusual step of issuing sanctions against a group of DOJ lawyers for serious ethical violations. These weren’t just any sanctions; Hanen found that because the DOJ lawyers’ ethical lapses were so severe, all DOJ attorneys were ordered to undergo ethics training before they could resume work. Despite admitting that its attorneys had intentionally left out crucial facts, the DOJ had the audacity to oppose both the scope and severity of the sanctions order.
Punishment of DOJ attorneys isn’t like punishment of private attorneys, the very nature of a public position is that it is accompanied with public trust. As Hanen noted, “any private law firm with this record would either be deeply ashamed, out of business, or both.” Likely, Hanen’s motivation for these sanctions was to promote accountability for these DOJ attorneys by putting their unethical conduct into the limelight for the public to see. With DOJ misconduct under public scrutiny, Hanen may have foreseen that it would only be a matter of time before the Department took it upon itself to clean up its act, which it eventually did by instituting one-hour ethics classes for a number of its attorneys. After receiving the sanctions, DOJ eventually produced justification for its actions, and the judge begrudgingly suspended the sanctions order. Hanen’s unprecedented actions, however, speak volumes as to the reputation of the Department under the past administration.
Public criticism and calls to action for better behavior from the DOJ have helped in another context as well. Sessions announced on June 7 that the DOJ would not settle enforcement actions by allowing companies to pay judgments against them by contributing to special interest groups with no personal interest in cases. This practice, long opposed by lawmakers, was what Sessions referred to as a “bankroll…for the political friends of whoever is in power.”
Though not directly related, these actions condemn the Department’s past actions. Both the threat of ethical sanctions from a federal judge and the end of slimy slush payouts represent the beginning of a new era for the Department of Justice, one that both restores the public trust and respects the rules of law.Through these actions, the new administration is working towards keeping DOJ accountable, a process put into motion by judges in the federal courts. This can only be done by holding its attorneys to the highest of ethical standards and by putting a stop to processes that try to sidestep the rule of law. Government attorneys should be held to the same—if not a higher—standard of conduct as all other attorneys.
As Judge Hanen wrote, “the ethical choices of each Justice Department attorney … play an important role in determining whether this nation is one that is ruled by law or ruled by something or someone more corruptible.” With the nation left in a state of distrust by the actions of the past administration and its respective agencies, these positive steps taken by the Department of Justice and the courts are more necessary now than ever before. They help ensure powerful people are not able to utilize others as merely means for their own ends. General Sessions’ efforts to right the ship and restore its historic status as a respected institution and enforcer of the laws of the United States are very welcome indeed.
Hanen noted, the “department’s [then] current haphazard approach to ethical standards has not been without certain consequences, although the person who suffers those adverse effects is usually someone other than the Justice Department lawyer.” Whether it be by a strict enforcement of ethics rules or the end of slush fund payouts to private interest groups, the Department of Justice is cleaning up its act, and the timing couldn’t be better to restore America’s trust.