Ben Civiletti, who died on Sunday at his home near Baltimore, served as U.S. Attorney General when the abuses of Watergate were still fresh and the Department of Justice badly needed reforms. It is worth noting that one of the men at Civiletti’s right hand during that period of recovery from Watergate was the present U.S. Attorney General, Merrick Garland. If you want some comparative history — the DOJ before and during the Watergate scandal compared to the post-Trump DOJ — read this piece from The Atlantic by Fordham law professor Andrew Kent.

The essay appropriately credits Edward Levi, the first AG appointed by Richard Nixon’s successor, Gerald Ford, with starting the reform efforts at DOJ. “His work, which was continued by Attorneys General Griffin Bell and Benjamin Civiletti, who served under President Jimmy Carter, was spectacularly successful,” Kent writes. And Garland was there, during the Civiletti years, as a special assistant to the AG.

Garland is fifth from the left, with Attorney General Benjamin R. Civiletti’s staff in 1980.

According to another, more recent Atlantic essay worth your time — “The Inevitable Indictment of Donald Trump” — it was important work that burnished Garland’s reputation for integrity and helped establish the DOJ’s independence from the White House.

“In the aftermath of Watergate,” writes Franklin Foer, “[Garland] sat by Civiletti’s side as he continued the work of reforming the Justice Department: writing new rules and procedures to prevent another president from ever abusing the institution. They were preserving the rule of law by bubble-wrapping it in norms, so that it would be thoroughly insulated from political pressure.”
In Garland, there is no better man for the job of investigating the acts of the former president.

Here’s the statement he released on Civiletti’s passing:
“Attorney General Civiletti was my first boss at the Justice Department in 1979. As one of his Special Assistants, I had the great honor to witness firsthand the skill, integrity, and dedication with which he led the Department. Among many other achievements during his tenure, Attorney General Civiletti continued the work begun by his predecessors, Attorneys General Edward Levi and Griffin Bell, in the wake of Watergate to restore public trust in the Department of Justice. Attorney General Civiletti wrote into policy the norms established to ensure the Department’s independence, fair application of our laws, and adherence to the Rule of Law. Today, thanks in large part to him, those norms continue to guide the work of every Justice Department employee, every single day. Attorney General Civiletti’s portrait hangs outside my office, and I am reminded each time I see it of the kind of Attorney General I strive to be. Attorney General Civiletti’s dedication to the Justice Department, his work, and his life will continue to be an inspiration for generations of public servants to come.”

One thought on “Ben Civiletti, Merrick Garland and the push for independence at DOJ, then and now

  1. Dan thank you for this bit of history which I did not know. I will share it with our eldest granddaugther who works at DOJ. Looking forward to attending your play on Dec 3rd.
    Sue Talbott

    Liked by 1 person

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