Of all the controversial presidential actions during President Trump’s first three years in office, few challenged the norms of presidential behavior more than his constant barrage of attacks on his own Department of Justice. President Trump violated traditional norms governing the relationship between the White House and the Department of Justice in two distinct ways. First, on Twitter and in other public statements, he repeatedly called upon the Department to investigate political opponents. Second, the President repeatedly attacked the Department’s investigation of Russian interference with the 2016 presidential election (“the Mueller investigation”) and other investigations relating to the misconduct of the President and his associates. White House interference in cases where the President has a personal or political stake raises obvious conflict-of-interest problems that threaten the impartiality of the criminal justice system. Not since Richard Nixon has a president been so heedless of these potential conflicts of interest. President Trump’s efforts to influence individual investigations raised serious concerns within and outside of the Department of Justice.
Thus far, the academic treatments of President Trump’s DOJ interactions have focused solely on the rules that have traditionally governed the relationship between the White House and the Department of Justice. These articles have made persuasive cases that President Trump’s actions violate these informal norms and constitutionally based policies. Although the President properly must be concerned with the general policies that govern the allocation of prosecutorial resources and the focus of government law enforcement at the Department of Justice, it is a different matter when the White House becomes involved with individual investigations and prosecutions. White House influence over individual cases creates at least the appearance of improper political influence designed to punish opponents and shield the friends of the incumbent President.
The case against White House involvement in individual cases becomes much stronger, however, when placed in the context of constitutional limitations on the involvement of both the judicial and legislative branches in individual prosecutorial decision making. These rules prevent federal judges and the Congress from ordering federal prosecutors to initiate criminal cases or investigations. Moreover, the rules are sufficiently strict to prevent the other branches from influencing prosecutorial decisions through indirect methods such as congressional oversight of open criminal investigations.
The constitutional rules governing federal prosecutorial independence derive from the fundamental constitutional principle that all three branches must act independently before the federal government may punish someone for violating federal criminal law. Congress must act by passing a criminal statute of general applicability; the executive branch must independently investigate potential violations of that law and select individuals for prosecution; and the federal courts must determine individual guilt in a trial where the right to a jury is guaranteed. Thus, judicial and legislative involvement in individual prosecutorial decisions is constitutionally forbidden not because the involvement infringes on the President’s authority, but rather because such involvement would impermissibly aggrandize the other branches by giving them power over more than one stage of the three-stage federal criminal justice process.
These constitutional restrictions on judicial and legislative involvement in prosecutorial decisions strongly reinforce the case for prosecutorial independence from White House involvement in individual cases and investigations. The integrity of the process depends upon prosecutorial decisions that are free from political influence and based solely on the merits of the individual case. Each branch must play its part independently of the others, and the role of the executive branch is compromised if political influence taints the process of independent prosecutorial decision-making.
How then might we might respond to these challenges to federal prosecutorial independence? The first response is conceptual. We can reinforce the norm of prosecutorial independence within the executive branch by placing it in the context of the separation-of-powers principles that mandate prosecutorial independence from the judicial and legislative branches. These principles explain why the norm of prosecutorial independence from the White House in individual cases is so important. Second, Congress has several informal mechanisms to strengthen and preserve this norm, including oversight hearings and the Senatorial confirmation process. Third, we should consider potential statutory or regulatory changes that would protect prosecutorial independence in individual cases while respecting the President’s constitutional power to direct the general policies and management of the Department of Justice.
Todd David Peterson, Federal Prosecutorial Independence, 15 Duke Journal of Constitutional Law & Public Policy 217-289 (2020)
Available at: https://scholarship.law.duke.edu/djclpp/vol15/iss1/7