With the US Department of Justice facing controversy for its handling of the sentencing of political consultant Roger Stone, on February 18 the Reiss Center on Law and Security convened a panel of experts from the NYU Law faculty to analyze the matter and its implications for the Justice Department.
Anne and Joel Ehrenkranz Professor of Law Ryan Goodman, co-editor of online forum Just Security, moderated the discussion among Professor of Practice and Distinguished Scholar in Residence Bob Bauer, former White House counsel to President Barack Obama; Distinguished Senior Fellow Lisa Monaco, a 15-year veteran of the Justice Department and former homeland security and counterterrorism advisor to President Obama; and Distinguished Senior Fellow Andrew Weissmann, a former lead prosecutor in Special Counsel Robert Mueller’s office and former chief of the Justice Department’s Fraud Section.
Their conversation centered on the Justice Department’s change of position in the sentencing phase of Stone’s case. A sentencing memo first argued that Stone, who had been convicted of lying to Congress, obstructing an investigation, and witness tampering, was eligible for a sentence of seven to nine years under federal sentencing guidelines. The next day, after President Donald Trump tweeted that the case was not being handled fairly, the department filed a new brief that essentially withdrew that proposal, while four prosecutors resigned from the case. (A week later, Stone was sentenced to 40 months in prison.)
In their discussion, panelists explored the complex role of the US Attorney General and the risks of politicization of the Justice Department’s mission. The handling of the Stone sentencing, they agreed, represented a break with post-Watergate norms that had been established to safeguard the independence of the Justice Department.
Selected quotes from the discussion:
Monaco: “The White House and the president should not reach in and dictate how [a] prosecution’s investigations are going. Why? Because it is fundamental to our democracy that the citizens believe that the incredible power of the investigative arm of the federal government and the power to take somebody’s liberty that can be used in our criminal justice process, that that power not be used to effect particular political aims or deal with political enemies of the president or the kind of ruling political class, if you will.”
Bauer: “I don’t think it’s the last time we’re going see presidents putting this kind of pressure on their attorneys general. I don’t think it’s the last time we’re going see them select attorneys general who might be amenable to that kind of pressure. And the understanding we have of how these institutions are supposed to interact and what it means for the department not to be political is a little muddy, and we need to think it through before the next catastrophe occurs.”
Weissmann: “The one thing I’d just remind people is that this wouldn’t be the only president who people think may have misused their pardon power. I mean, it’s happened in the past in ways that, I think, people in the [Justice] Department think undermined the rule of law. It’s a very unusual power, in terms of where it derives from and how it’s implemented, because it doesn’t have all of the processes around it that you would want to see to make sure it’s not abused.”
Posted February 24, 2020
Follow the full discussion on video: