First we had John Ashcroft, whose tenure was marked by disdain for the Constitution he had sworn to uphold: the abuse of prosecutorial discretion; the politicization of the Department of Justice; the withholding of information from Congress, the public, and the courts; the systematic violation of the civil liberties of Americans; the indefinite detention of many hundreds of non-citizens with no connection to the 9/11 attacks; and, perhaps worst of all, the scurrilous attacks on the patriotism of those who dared to disagree.
Who could have imagined that things could get worse?
Yet Ashcroft’s successor often seemed more a White House functionary than the attorney general of the United States. Alberto Gonzales was ever-willing to subordinate the needs of justice to the demands of his political masters—crossing lines that even his predecessor had refused to cross. His cavalier disregard for the rule of law and his tenuous grasp of the responsibilities of his office were an embarrassment to the Department of Justice and an insult to the American people.
Now Gonzales is gone, but the department he headed lies in ruins—its morale shattered and its credibility at an all-time low. If the damage is to be repaired, there must be not only a change in leadership but a change of heart. If Americans are to regain their confidence in the administration of justice, we must have an attorney general of unimpeachable integrity who understands his (or her) duty to uphold the Constitution and is prepared to carry it out.
Mark Agrast is a Senior Fellow at the Center for American Progress, where he focuses on the Constitution, separation of powers, terrorism and civil liberties, and the rule of law. Prior to joining the Center for American Progress, Agrast was Counsel and Legislative Director to Congressman William D. Delahunt of Massachusetts from 1997 to 2003. He previously served as a top aide to Massachusetts Congressman Gerry E. Studds from 1992 to 1997 and practiced international law with the Washington office of Jones, Day, Reavis & Pogue from 1985 to 1991. During his years on Capitol Hill, Agrast played a prominent role in shaping laws on civil and constitutional rights, terrorism and civil liberties, immigration, criminal justice, antitrust, and other matters within the jurisdiction of the House Committee on the Judiciary. He was also responsible for legal issues within the jurisdiction of the House International Relations Committee (now the Committee on Foreign Affairs), including the implementation of international agreements on human rights, inter-country adoption, and the protection of intellectual property rights.
A native of Cleveland, Ohio, he received his B.A. summa cum laude from Case Western Reserve University in 1978, where he was elected to Phi Beta Kappa. He attended Oxford University as a Rhodes Scholar from 1978 to 1981, and received his J.D. in 1985 from Yale Law School. He is a member of the Supreme Court Bar and is admitted to practice in Ohio and the District of Columbia.
Agrast has been a leader in a number of professional and civic organizations, including the American Bar Association, where he is currently chair of the ABA Commission on Immigration, a member of the Commission on the World Justice Project, and a member of the House of Delegates. He is a past member of the ABA Board of Governors and its executive committee, and a past chair of the Section of Individual Rights and Responsibilities. He serves on the council of the ABA Fund for Justice and Education and has been a Fellow of the American Bar Foundation since 2001.