US Justice Department – Who Does it Really Serve?

The U.S. Justice Department likes to hold itself out as “counsel to the citizens of the nation.” That phrase probably makes a newly hired Assistant U.S. Attorney feel like he’s personally carrying on the torch lit by George Washington, Ben Franklin, Thomas Jefferson and other of America’s founding fathers. The phrase also appears in the U.S. Government Manual. Upon her confirmation as U.S. Attorney General, Janet Reno went on Larry King Live and called herself the “people’s lawyer.”

But does DOJ, Justice or simply The Department, as some insiders call it really serve as the citizen’s lawyers? How can it, for example, in a case brought by a citizen against a government agency or government officials. Surely it would be a conflict of interest for a lawyer to represent the litigants on both sides of a lawsuit.

And then there’s the issue of the President. Doesn’t he have the final say in legal matters which affect him or his office? Nearly all Presidents have used the Justice Department to implement and carry out their political policies and agenda.

To answer the question of who exactly the Justice Department represents, we must go back in time to Edmund Randolph, America’s first Attorney General. He was a friend and personal attorney for George Washington. The Attorney General was not one of America’s original cabinet positions. It wasn’t created until 1789 and was initially a part-time position.

Federal legal issues during the end of the 18th Century usually involved constitutional questions such as the nature and scope of federal power and states rights. It wasn’t until 1870 that the U.S. Justice Department was formed. And even then, civil rights enforcement and other programs which pitted citizens against the federal government in litigation had not yet been created.

FDR’s New Deal Legislation saw the creation of various new federal agencies, but at that time, America was free of the corruption and government inefficiency which is so widespread today. Furthermore, litigation was not as prolific and Americans simply did not sue the government.

During the Kennedy and Johnson years, Congress began passing federal civil rights laws and created federal programs such as those which gave federal funds to colleges and universities. As a result, much litigation arose over the enforcement and interpretation of these new laws and conflicts of interests arose between the U.S. Justice Department and private citizen litigants.

As a result, the Justice Department began taking on what some DOJ insiders have referred to as its “schizophrenic” nature. That is to say the Department had two personalities- counsel for the government and counsel for the citizens. As any first year law student can see, this created conflicts of interests and there should be little question as to which side always won.

During the Reagan-Bush years, civil rights laws were dismantled which invited even more litigation by the intended beneficiaries of those statutes who demanded their rights under them be enforced.

Although still on the books, in reality the contention that the Justice Department represents the citizens of the nation is not only out of date, but simply wrong.

By lexutor