Looking for Justice in the Building That Bears Its Name

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Sally Q. Yates in October 2015, when she was the deputy attorney general. She would later be fired for refusing to enforce President Trump’s travel ban. Credit Carolyn Kaster/Associated Press

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WASHINGTON — In the halls of the Justice Department, regardless of which party is in power, the refrain is always the same. Officials like to say that, unlike at other government agencies, their mission is right there in the name.

But I’ve covered the Justice Department under five attorneys general from both parties, and it’s never as simple as that. Each attorney general has strong views about what it means to do justice.

Questions of justice animate New York Times readers, too. I rarely get emails or calls about stories on Wall Street swindles or thwarted terrorism plots. But stories about whether terrorism suspects deserve lawyers? Or whether financial fraudsters are getting the kid glove treatment? Those strike at our sense of fairness, and the messages pour in.

I remember sitting across from Eric H. Holder Jr. in his fifth-floor office as he argued that state prosecutors should consider refusing to defend bans on gay marriage. I knew immediately that it was a controversial statement (he knew it, too). The story set off a debate over whether this was an act of justice and fairness or a politicization of the department.

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On Wednesday, April 4, I will talk with Sally Q. Yates, the former acting attorney general, at a Times Insider event at Georgetown University. Ms. Yates is probably best known for being fired for refusing to enforce President Trump’s travel ban. She has described it as a moment “when the law and conscience intersected.”

These moments, when we see the personal convictions behind the bureaucracy, bring the Justice Department beat to life. They can be dramatic: John Ashcroft’s resistance, from his hospital bed, to White House meddling, comes to mind. But sometimes they are clearest only in hindsight. Michael B. Mukasey promised to stabilize and depoliticize the department, and he is still highly regarded among career officials who say he meant it.

I look for stories that surprise. Jeff Sessions, who has reversed civil rights protections for gay and transgender people, dispatched a hate-crimes prosecutor to Iowa last year over the murder of a transgender teenager. I got angry emails from people who said the story gave Mr. Sessions too much credit, but reporters are not in the business of handing out credits and demerits.

Mr. Sessions is carrying out one of the sharpest U-turns in Justice Department philosophy in modern history. Times reporters have chronicled his reversals on civil rights, marijuana policy, immigration and more. If we do our job well, readers should get a sense of why these policies are taking shape.

Often these issues do not break along party lines, which make them interesting in a city where today’s battle lines are so clear.

One small example: Ms. Yates pushed for more lenient sentencing laws and an expanded educational system in federal prison. Mr. Sessions is adamantly opposed. But another of her signature decisions was ordering prosecutors not to go easy on Wall Street executives. That fits neatly with Mr. Sessions’s philosophy. “I was taught, if they violated the law, you charge them,” he said in 2010.

The politics of law enforcement are as murky now as ever. In the 1980s and 1990s, both parties united in the face of the crack epidemic to pass strict laws and mandatory minimum sentences. President Bill Clinton signed a bipartisan crime bill in 1994 that toughened sentences and paid for more prisons.

As a cub reporter in New Bedford, Mass., I covered the cops in a city surrounded by heroin addiction. My editor rightly saw it as the paper’s job to question the local government’s response. The result was a steady drumbeat of stories and editorials about the district attorney’s reluctance to use laws that would prompt mandatory minimum sentences. My editor was a Massachusetts liberal, hardly a law-and-order hard-liner. Like so many people, he was simply at his wit’s end.

When prison populations soared — a trend that disproportionately affected young African-American men — politicians began reconsidering their policies. Mr. Clinton said his law went too far. And Mr. Holder found common ground with libertarian-minded Republicans who say long prison sentences are an ineffective and expensive way to fight crime. Conservative states like Texas have helped lead a criminal justice reform movement.

Mr. Sessions is not having it. He cut his teeth as a prosecutor during the 1980s, and he credits that era’s laws with lowering crime nationwide. I recently wrote about how his views have put him at odds with Jared Kushner, the president’s son-in-law and adviser. The politics are changing around Mr. Sessions, but he retains the views of justice and fairness that he has held for decades.

For many conservatives, that makes him a man of principle. For many liberals, that makes him dangerous.

For me, that makes for a great story.

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Holder Sees Way to Curb Bans on Gay Marriage

Loretta Lynch Said to See Her Role as That of Traditional Prosecutor

Trump’s Talk About Muslims Led Acting Attorney General to Defy Ban

Jeff Sessions, a Lifelong Outsider, Finds the Inside Track

Holder Sees Way to Curb Bans on Gay Marriage

Loretta Lynch Said to See Her Role as That of Traditional Prosecutor

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