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Opinion The New York City bar goes after William Barr

Attorney General William P. Barr, left, appears at a news conference in Albuquerque in November 2019. (Mary Hudetz/AP)
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In a rare act of public challenge to the Trump administration, the New York City bar has written a remarkable letter to Justice Department Inspector General Michael Horowitz as well as the chairs and ranking minority-party members of the House and Senate Judiciary committees — Rep. Jerrold Nadler (D-N.Y.), Rep. Douglas A. Collins (R-Ga.), Sen. Lindsey O. Graham (R-S.C.) and Sen. Dianne Feinstein (D-Calif.). The letter begins:

We write to express our deep concerns about the impartial administration of justice in connection with the prosecution of Roger Stone in federal court in Washington, D.C., and to call for immediate investigations by Congress and by the Department of Justice Office of the Inspector General. Recent actions by the U.S. Attorney’s Office for the District of Columbia, a component of the United States Department of Justice, raise serious questions about whether the Department of Justice is making prosecutorial decisions based not on neutral principles but in order to protect President Trump’s supporters and friends. In our criminal justice system, a single standard must apply to all who are accused or convicted of violating the law — unequal treatment based on political influence is to be deplored in all cases but is especially dangerous if it emanates from the presidency.

The letter recounts the facts surrounding Stone’s crime and conviction, the sentencing recommendation and revision, and Trump’s public intervention. The letter bats down the notion that this is any way normal. The bar writes: “The Department of Justice is not in the habit of taking one position in court and then, without explanation, taking a startling different position on the very next day. ... We would applaud a generalized initiative by the Department of Justice that encourages judges to depart from those recommendations when justice requires. But this is not what the Department of Justice has done here.”

Instead, the bar says this appears “from all external circumstances to be an instance of President Trump and Attorney General [William P.] Barr acting in concert to protect Stone from punishment.” The letter argues that “the mere fact and timing of the Department of Justice decision to overrule the prosecutors who handled the case — just hours after President Trump’s tweet — is itself suggestive of improper influence. Even this appearance of improper influence is detrimental to the fair administration of justice, the rule of law and the public’s trust in the justice system.” And, of course, by weighing in with a congratulatory tweet, we know Trump viewed this as a political act.

The bar makes clear that this action is part of a pattern:

The City Bar has previously criticized the Attorney General for his failure to recuse himself from the Department of Justice’s review of the whistleblower complaint, in which the Attorney General was himself mentioned during the Trump-Zelensky phone call of July 25, 2019. We also have also called for congressional investigation of several public pronouncements by the Attorney General that we believe were inconsistent with the independence required of his office. The present case raises more direct, and more serious, questions concerning the role of presidential influence in prosecuting individual criminal cases. All prior Presidents, at least since Watergate, made it a practice to decline to comment on ongoing cases being handled by the Department of Justice. This practice protected the criminal justice system from improper presidential influence. ... [If departure from the practice] is tolerated, it will undermine the rule of law on which our nation was founded and on which we rely as a foundation of our democracy.

The letter then calls for “Congress and the Department of Justice Office of the Inspector General to begin immediate investigations into these unusual and troubling events.”

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The state supreme court has the real muscle, the power to discipline and ultimately to disbar members. But this is yet another flare sent up to the legal profession, Justice Department and courts that Trump’s conduct is intolerable and must be resisted.

If Barr is impervious to professional sanction, then perhaps this sort of statement will empower Barr’s subordinates to refuse his dictates and the courts to hold the line against political corruption of our legal system. You can expect former Justice Department employees, some who have individually spoken out, to make a joint showing of opposition to Barr’s actions and to support Justice Department staff members who choose to defy his political orders.

Attorney General William P. Barr pushed back against President Trump’s recent attacks on the Justice Department during a Feb. 13 interview with ABC News. (Video: The Washington Post)

Read more:

Chuck Rosenberg: This is a revolting assault on the fragile rule of law

Greg Sargent: Time for Democrats to get much tougher with William Barr

Harry Litman: ​​This is one of the most odious achievements of Trump’s presidency

Greg Sargent: As Trump openly corrupts DOJ, a former insider sounds the alarm

Radley Balko: The Roger Stone case highlights our pernicious system of tiered justice