The controversy over the appointment of interim U.S. Attorneys in the Department of Justice (DOJ) became a symbol of the Bush administration politicizing administration. This fall we’ve made a fairly careful study of appointees in DOJ, work which we’ll share when it’s (finally) ready to go. For now, there’s a wealth of coverage – particularly following news that Eric H. Holder is likely to be President-elect Obama’s nominee for Attorney General. Many DOJ attorneys, however, feel relatively insulated from (and uninterested in) administration politics. Describing Bush administration politicization Washington Post reporter Carrie Johnson, “Obama Team Faces Major Task in Justice Dept. Overhaul”(11/13/08) verged on hyperbole:

“As a transition team for the Obama administration begins work on a Justice Department overhaul, the key question is where to begin. Political considerations affected every crevice of the department during the Bush years, from the summer intern hiring program to the dispensing of legal advice about detainee interrogations, according to reports by the inspector general and testimony from bipartisan former DOJ officials at congressional hearings.”

This reporting inspired the following online exchange between Johnson and an anonymous commenter claiming 30 years DOJ service:

“New York: I have been with the Department of Justice for more than 30 years. You and other journalists continually describe the morale of Justice employees as low. I take issue with that description. If you would expend some effort investigating the morale issue in offices outside the D.C. metro area, where the bulk of the important work of the department is accomplished, you would find that the offensive conduct taking place within the walls of Main Justice has not impeded the efforts of those of us in the hinterland. I believe your continued misdescription of the “malfunctioning” of the federal justice system does a disservice to the federal employees who are carrying out the bulk of the Justice Department’s responsibilities, as well as to your readers, who are obtaining a false impression from your reportage. What will you do to cure this deficiency?

Carrie Johnson: Thanks very much for your message — I have heard from others in the field who say it is working quite well and that it is well-insulated from the problems at Main Justice in Washington.

While that may well be true in a majority of cases, what Sens. Leahy and Specter and as many others have flagged is indeed troubling. Many criminal defendants have cited the misconduct (as described by the Justice inspector general) to cast public doubt on the reliability of the criminal justice process and law enforcement decision-making.

That is a real problem and it should not be ignored.

The distinction is not only between “Main Justice” and the field. It is worth remembering how much of government operates will little attention to the political. There are plenty of DOJ lawyers working everyday around Washington with little practical concern for the turbulence of recent years.

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