Roosevelt changed that with a single appointment, of Henry L. Stimson, a young, Harvard-educated Wall Street lawyer, who would go on to serve as secretary of state and secretary of war for four presidents of both parties, including a brand-new chief executive, Harry Truman, who needed to know about the atomic bomb. (“I think it is very important that I should have a talk with you as soon as possible on a highly secret matter,” Stimson wrote his new boss.)
As the new U.S. attorney, Stimson immediately fired people. They were all hacks, in his estimation, careerist or corrupt or both. He replaced them with recent graduates from top law schools, whom he wanted only for a few years, after which they would go work for fancy law firms and be replaced by other idealistic and talented young lawyers.
There are few moments of true pivot in the lives of institutions, but the Southern District of New York pivoted in 1906. In the words of one of the district’s judges, “Henry L. Stimson changed the office of United States Attorney. He created the model of competence, integrity and professionalism that has set the standard for prosecutors ever since.”
With Stimson, a culture was founded. Politics were disdained. Academic achievement was prized. The office’s lawyers were known for being better — smarter, more principled, harder-working — than those in other federal offices, especially at the main Justice Department in Washington. There were 11 other federal prosecutors’ offices with “Southern District” in their names, but only one the world knew by that shorthand alone. (Sorry, Southern District of Alabama.) Some of the snobbery was fact-based. On average, its lawyers wrote better, worked harder, and thought more creatively and aggressively about complex cases than those in other places. On average. Of course, there were duds in the Southern District and plenty of great federal prosecutors in other offices, and many of those had their own proud traditions of independence.
But it really is true that the place disdains politics and prizes the independence of 1906. It is drilled into you during the application process, reinforced by your supervisors, and policed by the many federal judges and powerful law firm partners who are alumni. Stimson left a bequest, held in trust, and our job was to protect it. Every United States attorney appointed by a president was an alum of the office — known for decades with a capital letter, “the Office.” They had all been steeped in the culture and then appointed to protect it.
And the most important way to preserve and protect was to never forget that Washington was political and that was bad. People in D.C. always asked, “How will this look?” before they ever asked, “What is true?” That world was one of appearances, spin, damage control, popularity, politics.
There has always been a tension — much of it healthy — between Washington and the Southern District, but the attempt to fire the current United States attorney feels very different. Geoffrey Berman’s office has apparently been handling cases very close to the president. In 136 days, there is an election that the incumbent appears likely to lose. The attorney general, surely not proceeding on his own, acts to bump the well-regarded head of the Office on a Friday night, in the middle of a pandemic. Something stinks.
The country is well-served by the independent spirit and reputation of the Southern District of New York. It has long been the place where hard cases could be done in a way Americans trusted. It was where Bill Clinton’s 11th-hour pardon of fugitive financier Marc Rich could be credibly investigated. It is also the place with jurisdiction over so much of this president’s complicated life.
And it is a place that follows the facts alone to reach conclusions, without regard to politics, just as Stimson wanted. Maybe that’s why William P. Barr moved to knock off Berman on a Friday night and announced President Trump’s intention to replace him with someone who has never worked there. And maybe that’s why Berman, in the finest traditions of the office, stood up.