Political attacks are no match for Department of Justice’s integrity

Political attacks are no match for Department of Justice’s integrity
© Getty Images

In the last few months, Americans have learned more about the complex work of the United States Department of Justice and more about federal criminal procedure than they would have ever expected. Indictments, convictions, and guilty pleas have been issued in rapid succession, many with national implications.

Russian hackers, Russian intelligence officers, sitting congressmen, a national security advisor, and both the former personal attorney and the former campaign chairman for our country’s chief executive all have been indicted, plead guilty and/or been convicted in the last nine months alone.

ADVERTISEMENT

These high-profile cases span the misuse of campaign funds, lying to investigators, bank fraud, tax evasion and cyber crime up to and including attempts to interfere with the U..S electoral system. They also illustrate the key tools that federal investigators and prosecutors routinely use in the pursuit of justice, including granting witnesses immunity, or securing the testimony of convicted cooperators.

Underlying the variety of these cases are two common elements. First, they all involve conduct that undermines the very fabric of our democracy and, therefore the cases have rightfully captured our attention as we try to understand their long-term consequences for the country. Second, the cases have been brought to our attention, investigated and now successfully prosecuted thanks in large part to the dedicated women and men who work in our justice system across the country. 

In fact, if there is any silver lining to these and other attacks on our democratic system, it is that in responding to them our law enforcement officials, prosecutors and judicial officers have demonstrated the profound value and integrity of our justice system.

Equally as impressive, they have done so while being subjected to a steady barrage of disparagement and abuse. Judges, FBI agents, and prosecutors have had their impartiality, commitment to the law and professionalism attacked in vicious and unfounded ways. Yet, through it all, and especially in these last weeks, they have persevered and continued to uphold the principles of justice, equality and the rule of law. 

As a former federal prosecutor, I am not surprised. Throughout my years at the Department of Justice — the only government department named for a virtue — I was continually impressed by the deep and abiding commitment to the common good demonstrated by the men and women with whom I worked.

My colleagues weren’t guided by politics. Their commitment was to something more enduring and more important: evidence and the truth it reveals. They knew that the truth is the truth. They were and are willing to work diligently to find and uphold it.

To reach the truth, they demonstrated another fundamental virtue: patience. I saw time and time again, how they practiced the patience to identify and uncover the evidence in a case. They practiced the patience to not pre-judge a case, but to wait and see what the evidence established. They also practiced patience when outsiders tried to influence them to rush an investigation to conclusion before it was completed, knowing that rushing any case undermines the effort to ensure justice.

Such a determined and deliberate faith in following the evidence where it leads can be hard to maintain in the face of accusations — often very personal — that a case has been mishandled or that investigators or prosecutors have engaged in misconduct.

But seasoned prosecutors ignore such attacks from the opposition. They have the experience to know that when unfounded and personal attacks are lodged against them, it is usually a clear sign that they are on the right track and the facts and evidence are on their side.

Just as world-class athletes dig deeper when they are second-guessed or their abilities are questioned, experienced prosecutors work twice as hard to uncover the evidence in a case when they are attacked. Prosecutorial patience matures with experience and with the knowledge that the mission of the Department of Justice is to uncover the truth. Win or lose, the goal is to be faithful to this mission and ensure that justice is served.

In fulfilling this mission, the representatives of our justice system protect us against a danger that Robert Kennedy identified in a speech he gave a few months before he died. In his speech, the former attorney general and future namesake of the Justice Department’s headquarters reflected on a particular way our institutions can fail us.

“For there is another kind of violence,” he observed, “slower but just as deadly destructive as the shot or the bomb in the night. This is the violence of institutions; indifference and inaction and slow decay. This is the violence that afflicts the poor, that poisons relations between men because their skin has different colors. This is the slow destruction of a child by hunger, and schools without books and homes without heat in the winter.”

When our institutions fail in the way that Kennedy so eloquently identified, when individuals or corporations flout the law, when communities are ravaged by violence and crime and when leaders fail to live up to their responsibilities, the public servants in the justice system are frequently the last and best recourse.

I saw firsthand how they alone are often in the position to see that justice is done. In patiently pursuing the truth by presenting cases to an independent judiciary and citizen juries, they return to victims a measure of the dignity that has been denied them. They also ensure our institutions — which sometimes fail us in the way Kennedy described — are restored in a manner that rebuilds the confidence of the people they are supposed to serve.

Both my experience and the actions of investigators and prosecutors over the last year have brought home a critical fact about our justice system. Without these dedicated public servants, we cannot possibly hope to achieve our fundamental national mission: creating a more perfect union.

Eileen M. Decker is the former United States attorney for the Central District of California. She is also the former deputy mayor for Homeland Security & Public Safety for the City of Los Angeles. She currently teaches Cybersecurity and Homeland Security at USC and UCLA Law Schools.