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Hundreds of Lawyers, Law Profs and Former Judges Warn: Bill Barr’s ‘Political Misuse’ of the DOJ Could Undermine Election

WASHINGTON, DC - JULY 28: U.S. Attorney General William Barr testifies before the House Judiciary Committee in the Congressional Auditorium at the U.S. Capitol Visitors Center July 28, 2020 in Washington, DC. In his first congressional testimony in more than a year, Barr faced questions from the committee about his deployment of federal law enforcement agents to Portland, Oregon, and other cities in response to Black Lives Matter protests; his role in using federal agents to violently clear protesters from Lafayette Square near the White House last month before a photo opportunity for President Donald Trump in front of a church; his intervention in court cases involving Trump's allies Roger Stone and Michael Flynn; and other issues.

Several hundred current and former attorneys offered their support for Department of Justice (DOJ) personnel who may feel uneasy about being used for Attorney General Bill Barr’s political agenda.

In an open letter published Thursday, the signatories warned of “difficult choices” facing DOJ employees who are worried about “political misuse” of the nation’s top law enforcement agency as the 2020 general election looms in the none-too-distant future.

“By word and deed, Attorney General Barr has demonstrated a willingness to politicize the DOJ by backing and helping to implement the President’s most partisan and extreme views,” the letter says. “[President Donald Trump’s] refusal to commit to a peaceful transition of power – even if solely intended as another effort to discourage voters – heightens our concern about what actions [Barr] might take that would undermine the vote and the rule of law.”

Among those warning about Barr’s partisan “misuse” of the DOJ are eight former federal judges, nine former presidents of the American Bar Association, and four former state attorneys general. The letter itself was organized by the nonprofit social welfare organization Lawyers Defending American Democracy (LDAD).

The letter criticizes “prosecutorial actions” that have been widely viewed as favorable to both Trump’s “friends and partisan interests” and notes that such actions “have eroded public confidence” in the DOJ’s ability to deliver “impartial justice for all people.”

“This sacred duty remains the guiding principle for the women and men of the U.S. Department of Justice,” the letter says. “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.”

Thursday’s document goes on to catalogue a series of Barr’s public statements reflecting his decidedly partisan use of the DOJ:

  • On September 14, he stated: “As an attorney general, I’m not supposed to get into politics.” He then immediately undermined that standard: “We [are] going to find ourselves irrevocably committed to the socialist path . . . if Trump loses this election. . . .”
  • On September 16, The New York Times reported that Attorney General Barr had asked DOJ prosecutors to consider filing criminal charges against the Seattle Mayor, whom President Trump had attacked for allowing a police-free zone to help calm unrest.
  • On September 17, Barr embraced one of the President’s chief campaign themes with a shocking statement, asserting that state stay-at-home measures to control coronavirus spread constituted the “greatest intrusion on civil liberties” in history “other than slavery.”
  • On September 23, Barr dishonored constitutional checks and balances by blocking DOJ officials from appearing before Congress because House Judiciary Committee Democrats had been “scolding” him at his July 28, 2020 testimony.

The letter also cites prior wholesale public efforts by large agglomerations of attorneys calling attention to Barr’s political maneuvering–specifically regarding the DOJ’s obvious interventions on behalf of Trumpworld favorites Roger Stone and Michael Flynn.

Regarding the election itself, the letter notes that Barr has endorsed Trump’s threat to use law enforcement at polling places as well as the Republican Party’s evidence-free assertions about the sketchy nature of mail-in balloting–arguing that the latter is of particular concern due to the high likelihood of post-election litigation aimed at revoking ballots.

“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,” the letter concludes. “They honor the rule of law, our profession, and the country as we face this crucial test for our democracy.”

[image via Chip Somodevilla/Getty Images]

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Matt Naham is managing editor of Law&Crime. He formerly worked as news editor and weekend editor at Rare.