(Reuters) - On Wednesday afternoon, the Judiciary Committee of the U.S. House of Representatives heard blistering testimony on Attorney General William Barr’s conduct in office.
Assistant U.S. Attorney Aaron Zelinsky described political influence in the Justice Department’s sentencing recommendation for Roger Stone, an ally of the president. DOJ career attorney John Elias told the House committee about unwarranted antitrust investigations of marijuana dispensaries businesses, allegedly motivated not by anticompetitive concerns but by the Attorney General’s “personal dislike” of the cannabis industry. Donald Ayer, who served as Deputy Attorney General under President George H.W. Bush, provided 18 pages of written testimony about why, in his view, “Attorney General Barr is a major threat to our legal system and to public trust in it.”
DOJ rebutted that premise in a statement. “The Attorney General stated during his confirmation hearing that it (is) his job to ensure that the administration of justice and the enforcement of law is above and away from politics,” the statement said. “He has and will continue to approach all cases at the Department of Justice with that commitment to the rule of law and the fair and impartial administration of justice.”
Congressional Republicans pushed back against the witnesses at Wednesday’s hearing, accusing Ayer, for instance, of bearing a decades-long grudge against Barr.
Barr himself has accepted an invitation to appear before the House Judiciary Committee on July 28, so we certainly have not heard the last word on his administration of the Justice Department.
Over the last nine months, the Attorney General’s most persistent institutional critic has been the New York City Bar Association. Other groups, such as the American Bar Association and the Boston Bar Association have occasionally issued statements emphasizing the importance of an independent judiciary. The NYC group has repeatedly called out the Attorney General, by name, for “a pattern of conduct … that threatens public confidence in the fair and impartial administration of justice.”
That specific quote is from a letter the bar association sent to Congressional leaders in January, calling for a formal inquiry into AG Barr’s skeptical public comments about political progressives and about the investigation of contacts between the 2016 Trump campaign and Russian officials.
But that wasn’t the first time the NYC Bar Association raised concerns about the Attorney General’s conduct. In October 2019, the group issued a call for Barr to recuse himself from any Justice Department review of President Trump’s phone call with the president of Ukraine, arguing that the AG’s actions seemed to be “contrary to the professional standards of the DOJ, his oath of office and his own obligations as an attorney.”
Since the January letter to Congress, the NYC bar group has protested the Attorney General’s actions in the DOJ sentencing recommendation for President Trump’s ally Roger Stone and submitted an amicus brief backing the right of the trial judge in the case of former National Security Advisor Michael Flynn to review DOJ’s dismissal of charges.
Earlier this month, the city bar association called for Congress to investigate the Trump administration’s treatment of protesters in Lafayette Square, asserting that the actions of the president and the AG had cast doubt on “the integrity of DOJ and the ability of both our federal and military courts to carry out their functions without improper political influence.”
And on Tuesday, the group said in another letter to Congress that Barr’s actions in connection with the removal of Manhattan U.S. Attorney Geoffrey Berman were “the exact opposite of the Attorney General’s proper role.”
That’s a remarkable – and remarkably pointed – litany of complaints. I asked the Justice Department to comment on the New York City Bar’s repeated calls for Congressional investigation and the group’s underlying criticism but did not immediately hear back.
I did, however, have a chance to speak with Stephen Kass, who has signed all of the NYC bar’s letters and reports on the Attorney General in his role as chair of the group’s task force on the rule of law. Kass, who is senior environmental counsel at Carter Ledyard & Milburn, emphasized that his signature reflects the consensus of the two dozen members of the task force, which began last summer to focus on threats to the domestic rule of law. (A previous iteration of the task force was more concerned about the how the U.S. response to international terrorism impacted the rule of law.)
“The threat to the rule of law now are broader and more serious even than in Watergate,” said Kass, who has been practicing law since 1965. “That is a disconcerting thought for any lawyer and any American.”
Kass said the city bar’s leadership has fully backed the task force’s letters and reports, some of which have been co-signed by the group’s top officials. The New York City bar was founded 150 years ago to respond to endemic corruption in the city’s government, Kass said, and considers the fair administration of justice to be one of its core missions. So “when that system is undermined by the actions of our own government,” he said, “our obligation is to speak up.”
I asked Kass whether he believed the bar group’s letters and reports had made an impact. He said that at the very least, the “brave people” within DOJ who have spoken out about the AG’s actions know they have institutional support from a large bar association.
And the public, he said, knows as well. “They see our profession is not just standing by,” Kass said.