In The Atlantic, Professor Andrew Kent examines the Department of Justice and the scandals that President Biden has inherited and the similarities to the DOJ that President Gerald Ford inherited in 1974.
President Joe biden is facing problems Gerald Ford would have appreciated. Like Ford in 1974, Biden has come into office following a president accused of criminality. Both Biden and Ford inherited a Department of Justice plagued by scandal and well-grounded charges of politicization. Both had to choose a nominee for attorney general knowing that recent occupants of that office contributed to partisanship and displayed a lack of integrity. And both took office while questions lingered about recent leadership of the Federal Bureau of Investigation, a component of the DOJ.
In the early and mid 1970s, various congressional committees investigated misdeeds at the Justice Department and its FBI component, and some important members of Congress proposed radical institutional change. Senator Sam Ervin, a Democrat from North Carolina, introduced a bill to turn the DOJ into an independent agency—akin to the Securities and Exchange Commission or the Federal Trade Commission.
Biden has so far said and done the right things. He (or aides speaking for him) has stated frequently as a candidate and president that he will have an “independent” Department of Justice that does not answer to the White House. Biden also picked as attorney general a person of outstanding character and qualifications. Perhaps even more importantly, as the legal commentator and scholar Benjamin Wittes wrote, Garland is “the closest thing American political and legal life offers in this polarized time to a figure above politics.” Garland and several senators paid tribute to the example of Ed Levi at Garland’s confirmation hearing.
In some ways, Biden and Garland face an easier task than Ford and Levi did. Levi, with crucial assistance from Congress, needed to come up with new policies from scratch, whereas Garland inherits a Justice Department with an honorable tradition to return to.
But in other ways, the problems are knottier today.