June 21, 2019

Harris, Whitehouse, Blumenthal Introduce Bill to Protect Independence of Justice Department

WASHINGTON, D.C. – U.S. Senators Kamala Harris (D-CA), Sheldon Whitehouse (D-RI), and Richard Blumenthal (D-CT) on Thursday introduced the Security from Political Interference in Justice Act, legislation to increase transparency in the relationship between the U.S. Department of Justice and the White House and prevent political interference in law enforcement decisions.  The bill would impose important reporting requirements for contacts between the Justice Department and White House pertaining to specific cases or investigations.

In May, Harris questioned Attorney General William Barr before the Senate Judiciary Committee about whether the president or anyone in the White House had directed him to open an investigation into any individual. Barr refused to answer.

“The administration of justice should be blind, not driven by politics.  But the President’s attempts to derail the Mueller investigation, paired with Attorney General Barr’s refusal to give clear answers to Congress, have raised serious concerns about DOJ’s independence,” said Harris. “The honor system isn’t enough anymore – we need a law.  I’m proud to work with Senators Whitehouse and Blumenthal to create transparency and give Congress important oversight tools to help restore the American people’s trust in the Department of Justice.”

The Justice Department has historically enjoyed a measure of independence from political interference in order to ensure even-handed administration of the laws.  While presidents and White House officials may properly engage with the Department on broad policy questions, it threatens the equal and just administration of law when the White House seeks to influence Department decision-making on individual law enforcement matters.  When this important norm has been violated, presidents have received heavy criticism. 

Although both the Department and the White House have long maintained policies that define and prohibit such inappropriate contacts, these policies lack the force of law and can be violated without remedy.  As a result, presidential administrations have continued to violate this norm. Under President Trump, the principle of Department independence has further deteriorated, demonstrating clearly that the current contacts policies are not effective.  Indeed, public reporting has revealed numerous contacts between White House and Department officials that, on their face, violate the contacts policies.

The Security from Political Interference in Justice Act would help to ensure the Justice Department’s independence by increasing transparency and accountability in the relationship between the White House and the Department.  The bill would require that:

  • Both the White House and Justice Department log all communications between White House and Justice officials and staff pertaining to specific cases or investigations that DOJ might undertake.  The log would include (1) the names of participants in the communication, (2) the topics of the communications, and (3) a statement describing the purpose and necessity of the communication.

  • The logs be disclosed every six months to Congress and to the Office of the Inspector General and the Office of Professional Responsibility of the Department.  It directs Office of the Inspector General and the Office of Professional Responsibility to review the logs and to notify Congress if any of the logged communications are inappropriate from a law enforcement perspective or raise concerns about improper political interference.  The bill exempts certain top-level contacts from disclosure to Congress, but requires those contacts to be logged, shared with the Inspector General’s office and the Office of Professional Responsibility, and disclosed in response to a Congressional subpoena.  Both the logging and disclosure requirements would remain in place irrespective of the White House and/or Department’s internal contacts policies.

A complete summary of the bill is available here

Bill text is available here.