The independent counsel statute: bad law, bad policy.

AuthorO'Sullivan, Julie
PositionEleventh Survey of White Collar Crime


The Watergate scandal--and the crisis in public confidence in government it spawned--left us many legacies, one of which is the Independent Counsel ("IC") statute.(1) Over twenty years after the fact, the "lessons" of the scandal itself continue to be the dominant reference. It is time to evaluate the "lessons" of Watergate's legacies and, in particular, the IC mechanism.

Watergate involved allegations not only of misconduct by officials at the highest reaches of the Executive Branch, but also of the attempted perversion of the criminal justice process. This attempt clearly was not successful,(2) but the threat posed--highlighted in perhaps the most dramatic chapter in the Watergate saga, the "Saturday Night Massacre"(3)--was perceived as sufficiently serious to provoke a crisis in public confidence in the impartial administration of criminal justice. The IC statute was designed to reassure the public that persons of political importance to the President will not receive more favored consideration in criminal investigations and prosecutions than would the average citizen. To promote the appearance and reality of evenhanded justice, it was felt that such investigations and prosecutions must be removed from their traditional home in the Department of Justice (the "DOJ") and entrusted to someone not chosen by, or subject to the control of, the administration. The requisite independence is sought to be achieved in the statute through the judicial appointment of an IC who may be removed by the Attorney General only upon a showing, satisfactory to a reviewing court, of good cause or disability.

This essay suggests that although the IC statute was intended to address a perceived problem in the criminal process, it appears over time to have been adopted as the mechanism by which any questions about the criminal or ethical conduct of senior public officials can credibly be investigated and addressed. The consequences are twofold. First, the IC mechanism is overused; it is invoked to displace the DOJ in cases where the likelihood that political pressure will derail the appearance or reality of prosecutorial fairness is low. Second, in cases where the political stakes are high--where, for example, the allegations of misconduct concern the President or Attorney General--the growth of the perceived function and importance of the IC mechanism has heightened the political consequence of IC investigations. Given the public and press attention devoted to such investigations, partisans cannot afford to let the IC process simply unfold and the political chips fall where they may. Recent experience demonstrates that the favored means by which to blunt the political damage posed by an IC investigation is to attack as biased the IC, or the judges that appointed him. One of the "lessons" of the operation of the IC statute, then, is that in cases of potentially great political import it creates partisan incentives to generate the very "appearance" problems that the statute sought to erase. As a consequence, although the IC mechanism in general may enjoy public support, the political dynamics of the statute mean that in the high-profile cases at the heart of the statute partisans will seek to destroy that which the statute is designed to further: public confidence in the integrity of the results of the independent investigation.

The IC mechanism, then, seems to guard against "appearance" problems in lower profile cases where no such problems truly exist, for example in the Theodore Olson and Timothy Kraft affairs, but does not, in today's political climate, operate to guarantee the "appearance" of justice is the high-profile cases where its intervention may be justified, such as in Iran-Contra and Whitewater. Even if it does not operate to cure serious "appearance" problems, however, can the IC mechanism be justified as necessary to the "reality" of the equitable administration of the criminal laws? I would submit that the statute, and the political dynamic the statute generates, encourage ICs to employ their vast, unchecked powers to impose a harsher and potentially inferior brand of justice upon those subject to IC investigation. On balance, it seems to me that the IC statute is not worth its high cost in human, financial and systemic terms.

The power to enforce the laws applicable to all citizens should be returned to the Executive Branch. Abandoning the IC mechanism may not only correct some of the inequities and potential abuses in its operation, it will also reorient the relevant inquiry. When allegations of wrongdoing by senior public officials arise, the primary focus should not be whether those officials are subject to criminal penalty but rather whether they are qualified to serve in high public office. Ensuring the equitable imposition of criminal penalties, while a significant goal, is less important than informing the public of the relevant facts, letting the political processes work to address the problem and thus promoting public confidence that this democracy functions as it should. The IC statute in effect says--contrary to the lessons of history--that these processes cannot work. Further, the statute entrusts this function to the IC, who, as a criminal prosecutor, is qualified only to assure fairness in the criminal process, not to explore public officials' fitness to serve the public. He cannot, and given the traditions and rules governing our criminal process, in fairness should not be asked to perform this larger function. Ultimately, it may be Congress or its delegees, not the IC, who should take the leading role in identifying for the public what happened and what should be done to remedy the problem, for now and in the future.


The statute operates generally as follows. It sets forth a list of "covered persons" as to whom, Congress has determined, the DOJ is conclusively deemed to have a conflict of interest in criminal investigations because of the covered persons' political power or importance to the success of an administration. These "covered persons" include the President, the Vice President, cabinet level officials (including the Attorney General), certain high-ranking officials in the Executive Office of the President and the DOJ, the Director and Deputy Director of the Central Intelligence Agency, the Commissioner of the Internal Revenue Service, and certain officials involved in the President's national political campaign.(4)

When the Attorney General receives specific and credible(5) information "sufficient to constitute grounds to investigate"6 whether these covered persons may have violated federal criminal law,' she is required to commence a "preliminary investigation."(8) After the Attorney General has completed the preliminary investigation, or 90 days have elapsed,(9) she must then report to the U.S. Court of Appeals for the District of Columbia Circuit, Special Division for Appointing Independent Counsels ("Special Division"), which was created "for the purpose of appointing independent counsels."(10)

If the Attorney General determines at the conclusion of the preliminary investigation that "there are no reasonable grounds to believe that further investigation is warranted," she will notify the Special Division and that Court "shall have no power to appoint an independent counsel with respect to the matters involved."(11) If, however, the preliminary investigation reveals that there are "reasonable grounds to believe that further investigation is warranted," then she "shall apply to the [Special Division] for the appointment of an independent counsel."(12) Under the statute, the Attorney General's decision to apply to the Special Division for the appointment of an IC is not reviewable "in any court";(13) the Attorney General's refusal to refer a case to the Special Division is also unreviewable.(14)

The Special Division has the sole discretion to select the IC to be appointed, and it is the court's responsibility to define that IC's prosecutorial jurisdiction.(15) In defining the IC's jurisdiction, the court is directed to "assure that the independent counsel has adequate authority to fully investigate and prosecute the subject matter with respect to which the Attorney General has requested the appointment of independent counsel, and all matters related to that subject matter."(16) This jurisdiction must "also include the authority to investigate and prosecute Federal crimes . . . that may arise out of the investigation or prosecution of the matter . . . including perjury, obstruction of justice, destruction of evidence, and intimidation of witnesses."(17)

With respect to all matters within the IC's jurisdiction, the statute grants the IC "full power and independent authority to exercise all investigative and prosecutorial functions and powers of the Department of Justice, the Attorney General, and any other officer or employee of the Department of Justice."(18) These functions include: conducting grand jury proceedings; engaging in civil and criminal litigation, including court proceedings and appeals; making applications for witness immunity, warrants, subpoenas or other orders; framing and signing indictments; and initiating and conducting prosecutions.(19)

As to the means for carrying out an IC mandate, the IC has the power to "appoint, fix the compensation, and assign the duties of such employees as such independent counsel considers necessary (including investigators, attorneys and part-time consultants)."(20) He also has a virtually unlimited budget; the DOJ is required to pay "all costs relating to the establishment and operation" of any IC office.(21) Further, the statute imposes no limitation on the duration of an IC's investigation; the only temporal limitation is the statute of limitations generally applicable to the alleged violation at issue.(22)

The IC "may be removed from office, other than by impeachment and conviction, only by the...

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