Like the Justice Department under Atty. General William Barr continues to be accused of doing President Trump's dirty work. Former Vice President Joe Biden has a chance. He should make restoring the department's image a key theme of his campaign and, if chosen, his administration.
Biden was asked to look at the example of a former president serving after Watergate – a scandal in which John Mitchell, who had served as President Nixon's attorney general for Nixon prior to his resignation, was sentenced to prison.
The president I am thinking of is not Jimmy Carter, who was elected in 1976 after promising government as good as the people. During his campaign, Carter suggested taking the Attorney General out of politics and mandating a six-year term. But this idea didn't go anywhere.
No, the president, whose example Biden should follow if elected, is defeated incumbent Carter, Gerald Ford. In the midst of Watergate 's crisis of confidence, Ford, as the attorney general, did not choose political confidants like Mitchell (or Robert F. Kennedy, the brother of President John F. Kennedy), but an apolitical jurist. Edward H. Levi, appointed Attorney General by Ford in 1975, was President of the University of Chicago and previously Dean of the Faculty of Law.
There is no perfect template for a U.S. attorney general. This is because the office is a hybrid. The Attorney General is at the top of the Prosecutor's hierarchy, but is also a member of the President's Cabinet, which is responsible for overseeing administrative priorities in terms of legislation and prosecution. (Even Levi agreed that the Department of Justice guidelines should be the President's guidelines.)
So Robert Kennedy campaigned for civil rights legislation; Jeff Sessions, Trump's first attorney general, supported Trump's immigration policy. (That didn't save him from Trump's anger that he completely refused to oversee the investigation into Russia's interference in the 2016 elections.)
Theoretically, a President Biden as Attorney General could elect someone with an outstanding political profile – Senator Amy Klobuchar (D-Minn.) Or (if not selected as Biden's running companion) Senator Kamala Harris (D-Calif.). ) – which could nevertheless prove conscientious when it comes to keeping politics away from law enforcement decisions.
But like Ford, Biden would take office after a period when the Department of Justice lost much of its credibility. At this point, priority should be given to the appointment of a Attorney General who, unlike RFK, Sessions and Eric H. Holder Jr., Obama's first Attorney General, was not involved in the President's political campaign.
Admittedly, attorneys general with experience in the Department of Justice can also act to undermine the credibility of the office. Barr was not a politician and was previously Attorney General under President George H.W. Bush. Loretta Lynch, Obama's second attorney general, was an experienced federal attorney who, despite meeting with Bill Clinton, got into political controversy while Hillary Clinton was under investigation by the FBI. (Lynch also allowed FBI director James B. Comey to outshine her in the decision not to indict.)
However, the best way for Biden to repair the damage in the Department of Justice would be to look for a contemporary version of Ed Levi, even though such a person may not be the most eloquent or effective advocate of Biden's criminal justice policy. The restoration of the Ministry of Justice's image must be the top priority.