The Bush administration, the gift that keeps on giving more than seventy days after it ceased to exist, left another judicial urine stain on the carpet of the young Obama administration. The new attorney general, Eric Holder, found the source of that stink, and in the process reawakened the confidence of those who believe in the rule of law.
In a statement on Wednesday, Holder requested that the conviction of former Alaska Sen. Ted Stevens be overturned, due to prosecutors withholding evidence vital to Stevens’ defense. Claiming there was wide prosecutorial conduct in Stevens being convicted of perjury — for lying on a Senate disclosure form about $250,000 in gifts and home renovations he received —Holder requested the case be thrown out “in the interest of justice.”
“After careful review, I have concluded that certain information should have been provided to the defense for use at trial,” Holder’s statement read in part.
Holder also said that the Justice Department’s Office of Professional Responsibility would be dispatched to “conduct a thorough review of the prosecution of this matter.”
Stevens defense attorney Brendan Sullivan said “the misconduct of the prosecutors was stunning to me. … Not only did the government fail to provide evidence to the defense that the law requires hem to provide, but they created false testimony … and they actually presented false testimony.”
International human rights activist Scott Horton hailed the DOJ move in the Daily Beast:
“By walking away from its highest profile public-integrity prosecution of the last several years and directing a probe into the dealings of his own prosecutors, Holder set a new tone in the Justice Department,” Horton said. “He also sent a strong signal of what the future may hold for more than a dozen other prosecutions of political figures during the Bush years. The Justice Department is now bracing for a makeover.”
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What’s so striking about this isn’t necessarily Holder’s stand on principle; it’s the way in which Stevens, a Rock-Ribbed Republican, was victimized by the Republican-powered Justice Department of the Bush administration — an unlikely example of political misconduct jumping the partisan shark.
It’s important not to make too much of Holder’s decision exonerating Stevens, whose conviction last year may have cost him re-election in November. At the age of 85, Stevens had political prospects that were were declining anyway, and nothing in Holder’s action changes in the least the fact of Stevens having done the things he was prosecuted for.
But Holder’s announcement puts further distance between his Justice Department and that of his more ethically challenged predecessors.
“He’s sent a message to all of his career people that we’re gonna play by the rules now,” said John Dean, author of “Broken Government” and former Nixon White House counsel, speaking Wednesday on MSNBC. “I think things had gotten a little loose and slack under prior attorneys general, during the Bush years. This sends a very clear message to his team and his prosecutors as to the conduct of his department.”
It’s tempting to wax cynical and say that Stevens beat the rap on a technicality, but that technicality is nothing less than the rule of prosecutorial procedure foundational to the law itself. After eight years of the law in relative wilderness, it’s refreshing to find that counts for something again. The reversal of Ted Stevens’ misfortune signals there’s hope for a reversal of our own.
Image credits: Stevens: Still from CBS News video.