Note: this piece was originally published in Just Security, and was written by Checks & Balances member Stuart Gerson.
Years ago, when I was a young Assistant United States Attorney for the District of Columbia, I was charged with the prosecution of a popular sitting United States Senator. It was, at that point, the most significant case I had been assigned. In the midst of my preparation, I received a call from the U.S. Attorney himself, telling me that my presence had been requested by the Assistant Attorney General for the Criminal Division, and that I was to attend a meeting about the case the next day at “Main Justice,” the colloquial name for the Department’s headquarters. Not long returned from overseas military service, and not yet steeped in the politics of the Department of Justice, this call was a decidedly unique experience for me. I reported to supervisors several steps down from the U.S. Attorney, who himself rarely, if ever, had any need to speak to me. And I had never even been inside of the Main Justice building. So, given the importance of the case, I naturally asked, “Who will be going with me?” “You’ll be on your own” was the reply. And when I inquired if there was anything particular that I was supposed to convey, I was told that I’d know what to do. Really?
With some apprehension, I appeared at Department headquarters and was led to an anteroom in the Criminal Division where I was joined by the defendant Senator’s attorney, among the best-known and most capable lawyers in the country, a name partner in one of the top law firms in Washington and an important political supporter of the incumbent president (Nixon), a fact that gave me pause. What’s more, he brought along a partner and several associates to back him up in seeking the Department’s dropping of the case.
Soon an inner door opened and the Assistant Attorney General (AAG) stepped out, uttered a general greeting and asked me – just me – to come into his office. The AAG introduced himself and then simply asked whether I thought the case in question was justly brought and whether the evidence was sufficient to support a guilty verdict at trial. I responded that we recently had “turned” a key witness and that the evidence otherwise was sound, and that we were well prepared. That was the whole conversation.