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Justice on Stevens

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Attorney General Eric Holder has decided that the Justice Department should abandon the corruption conviction secured against former Alaska Senator Ted Stevens. The bombshell decision has nothing to do with the merits of the case against Stevens–it stems from a recognition that the Justice Department’s Public Integrity Section behaved unethically in the conduct of the case—withholding vital evidence from the defense, among other things. Holder is himself a former Public Integrity prosecutor. He made the right call in the Stevens case.

In “Public Indecency,” my column in the American Lawyer out today, I survey the growing list of misconduct allegations against the Public Integrity Section. The Stevens prosecution is only one of roughly two dozen cases in which similar charges have been made on a credible level–collectively they make plain that an ethically-challenged “victory at all costs” mentality is now well entrenched there. Judge Sullivan, presiding over the Stevens case, asked an important question: “Does the Public Integrity Section have any integrity?” By referring the Stevens matter to the Office of Professional Responsibility for an investigation and possible internal disciplinary action—in addition to the sanctions that Judge Sullivan is promising—Holder makes clear that he appreciates the gravity of the damage done to the department’s reputation during the Bush era.

Holder’s difficult decision was essential, but it was only a first step. The Stevens prosecution was undertaken just as the Justice Department was coming under sustained fire from Congress and the media over a pattern of political prosecutions. The misconduct by prosecutors in the Stevens case, bad as it was, is trivial compared to what went on in a number of other political prosecutions which have been profiled here–the Siegelman case, the prosecutions of Paul Minor and two Mississippi judges, and the prosecution of Cyril Wecht.

All of these cases cry out for prompt investigation. Holder has taken the right first step. But much remains to be done if the Justice Department is to win back its reputation for integrity in politically-tinged cases. Restoring that reputation should be a top priority for Holder. Today he signals that it is a top priority.

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