Why 27 Distinguished DC Lawyers Filed a Complaint with Bar Association Against Attorney General Barr

It has been deeply disturbing to witness Attorney General William Barr persistently acting to undermine the rule of law over the past sixteen months. The administration of justice depends on lawyers honoring their ethical duties and playing by the rules, so the public can have confidence in the fairness and impartiality of our legal system.

As Massachusetts Attorney General, I was always mindful that the office I had the privilege to hold cast a far longer shadow than my own. My conduct mattered because the top legal officer of a state – or the federal government – is inherently obligated to serve as an institutional model for prosecutors, other lawyers, the public and the rule of law.

The organization I co-founded less than two years ago, Lawyers Defending American Democracy (LDAD), is dedicated to these same ideals.

Accordingly, LDAD is proud to have two members of its Steering Committee as signers along with the 25 other distinguished non-partisan leaders and members of the DC Bar who today filed an ethics complaint against Mr. Barr. This is a meticulously researched legal brief that describes in painstaking detail how Mr. Barr has violated his attorney’s oath of office and rules of professional conduct.

That complaint asks the DC Bar’s discipline office to investigate Mr. Barr’s alleged ethical violations and determine what sanctions would be appropriate.

The complaint is a sober and comprehensive “bill of particulars.” It challenges Mr. Barr’s actions as to four basic matters:

1. Unconstitutionally ordering, overseeing and supporting the forcible dispersal of constitutionally protected peaceful protests at Lafayette Square. In so doing, Mr. Barr unethically represented Mr. Trump’s personal interests in a “photo op” rather than carrying out his ethical duty to represent his client — the people of the United States — to protect their fundamental interest in their constitutional rights.

2. Misleading Congress and the public by asserting that the Mueller Report did not contain sufficient evidence to establish that President Trump committed the crime of “obstruction of justice.”

3. Deceiving the American people in his unprecedented December 2019 attack on a report from a Justice Department Inspector General. Mr. Barr misrepresented the IG’s determination that the FBI had a proper basis for launching its 2016 counterintelligence investigation — by leaving out crucial evidence on which the IG relied.

4. Issuing harmful and totally unnecessary public prejudgments of FBI personnel during a pending criminal investigation he was overseeing in which they were potential defendants – seriously interfering with the administration of justice.

All of these matters are part of Mr. Barr’s pattern of placing the president’s personal and political interests ahead of his ethical duty to represent the interests of the United States in dispensing evenhanded justice under the rule of law and upholding the Constitution.

Sober and highly experienced lawyers like those who signed the complaint wouldn’t take such an action except in extraordinary circumstances. It is only because Attorney General Barr’s abuses are so serious, so repetitive, and so well documented in the complaint that the signers felt compelled to hold Mr. Barr accountable — to protect the integrity of the legal profession and the American legal system.

Among the remarkable list of signers are four former DC Bar Presidents – former leaders of the organization they now call upon to investigate Mr. Barr – and a former DC Bar senior discipline lawyer, now ethics counsel to Georgetown University’s Law Center. Signers include former Watergate prosecutor Philip Lacovara (who argued and won U.S. v. Nixon in the U.S. Supreme Court) and former Justice Department prosecutor Paul Butler, now a law professor, who knows what is required for ethical behavior by Justice Department lawyers. Also among the signers are former law school deans, eminent legal ethics professors, and distinguished former government officials.

If establishment lawyers can issue this exceptional call for accountability, Congress should heed the call and question Mr. Barr about the specific ethical violations charged, when he testifies next week. Bar associations and lawyers around the country should discuss the complaint and demand the application of professional standards to the U.S. government’s top lawyer.

The public should not stand for more of this misconduct in the Attorney General’s office. At the least, this bar action may help to deter such actions for the balance of Mr. Barr’s tenure.

 

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About the Author(s)

Scott Harshbarger

Former Attorney General of Massachusetts, and co-founder and chairman of Lawyers Defending American Democracy (LDAD).