Forty years of institutional memory, which cannot be replaced, walked out of the Justice Department last month.
Attorney, Douglas Letter, joined the DOJ in 1978. For four decades, he defended controversial policies advanced by Democrats and Republicans from the executive branch in an apolitical, balanced, and fair-minded manner. And, he didn’t want to leave. He felt compelled to do so.
Letter, 64, reflected on his long government service last week at the Georgetown Law Center, where he will be teaching national security law. As he told NPR columnist, Carrie Johnson:
"My father and several other people in my family were also career public servants," he said, "so I grew up feeling like public service was a calling."
Letter fought for the government regardless of who was in power — through the Reagan, Clinton, and George W. Bush presidencies. After 9/11, his caseload included, among others, addressing waterboarding and detainee treatment and lethal drone strikes.
Asked for his proudest moments by Ms. Johnson, he mentioned: "The Obergefell case. That's the one where the Supreme Court decided that gay marriage was constitutionally protected." He also mentioned defense of the bipartisan McCain-Feingold Campaign Finance Act (2002), though, he noted, "In the long run, that didn't work out so well."
The Act was designed to address two issues: the increased role of soft money in campaign financing; and, the proliferation of issue advocacy ads, all the “junk” we see on television almost every single day during the political election cycle.
In March 2009, the U.S. Supreme Court heard oral arguments in Citizens United v. Federal Election Commission, addressing some of these political gibberish ads and documentaries, and the related soft money that everyone knew would pour in, but for the Act. In January 2010, the Supreme Court struck sections of McCain–Feingold down, which limited the activity of these politically made up corporations. Specifically, Citizens United struck down campaign financing laws related to corporations and unions that previously banned the broadcast of "electioneering communications" paid for by corporations in the 30 days before a presidential primary and in the 60 days before the general election. The minority argued that the Court erred in allowing unlimited corporate spending, effectively by made up corporations, arguing that corporate spending posed a threat to democratic self-government.
Citizens United opened the floodgates for special interests—including foreign corporations hiding in the wings—to spend without limit in our elections, thus allowing American elections to be bankrolled by America's most powerful interests, or worse, by foreign entities. The decision was called "a major victory for big oil, Wall Street banks, health insurance companies, and the other powerful interests that marshal their power every day in Washington to drown out the voices of everyday Americans." And, it’s why we are inundated in every political cycle with misleading ads of gibberish from made up corporations created solely for the purpose promoting special interests and specific political agendas. You can thank Republican, Mitch McConnell, and his posse of suck ups, along with the special interests, for the decision.
Is there anyone out there who really enjoy these fabricated incredible partisan ads? Douglas Letter tried his best to prevent them.
As a mark of his reputation and the respect he has garnered, the guest list at Letter's going-away party included the Chief Justice John Roberts and new Supreme Court Justice, Neil Gorsuch.
People who know Letter believe clearly that Trump's tweets and attacks on the Justice Department motivated his leaving. Without addressing the tweets directly, he offered to Carrie Johnson the following when questioned about his concerns for the DOJ as an institution:
"Yes," he said, "one obviously has to be concerned about the Justice Department and the future of the Justice Department."
How incredibly sad the impact complete and utter ignorance can have.
Letter will be bringing his four decades of experience to the Institute for Constitutional Advocacy and Protection at Georgetown. The Center is already involved in litigation over Trump's threat to crack down on sanctuary cities and efforts to block his critics on Twitter. Letter will not participate in those cases for ethical reasons, but he expects to be fully involved in other lawsuits over bail practices that punish poor people and our current criminal justice and prison system, and a new case in Charlottesville, Va., that is trying to prevent militias and paramilitary groups from wreaking more havoc there – from having the “good people” Trump claims to have existed - the anti-Semitic, racist white supremacists - from killing anyone else.
For those outside the law, it may be difficult to fathom just how significant a loss this is, but, trust me, it is huge and a very unnecessary loss. This longtime public servant told Carrie Johnson he will most assuredly miss the 60 lawyers in his Justice Department unit:
"It was extremely hard to leave, and I'm hoping they will continue to invite me to play on their softball team, so I can keep up with them — even though I'm clearly the weakest member of the team," he joked.
When you attack, and undermine, the fabric of our justice system that has separated us from the rest of the world for more than two centuries, you begin to align us with those who have never truly known justice. The DOJ is comprised of public servant lawyers, who are apolitical and who serve rather than seek the financial reward attainable in the private sector. Douglas Letter is not replaceable and it is very sad that we even have to discuss the departure of one so valuable who had no intention of leaving.
It’s time to wake up!