Can the President Control the Department of Justice?

75 Pages Posted: 20 Feb 2018 Last revised: 9 Nov 2018

See all articles by Rebecca Roiphe

Rebecca Roiphe

New York Law School

Bruce A. Green

Fordham University School of Law

Date Written: February 20, 2018


As the investigation into President Trump's campaign ties to Russia grows increasingly intense, it is critical to understand how much control the President has over the Attorney General and the Department of Justice. Some critics claim that the President has absolute power to direct federal prosecutors and control their decisions. The President and his lawyers, joined by several scholars, take this claim one step further by arguing that the chief executive could not be guilty of obstruction of justice because his control over all prosecutorial decisions is absolute. This issue last arose during the Nixon Administration. The Department of Justice and the Independent Counsel disagreed about whether the President, as head of the executive branch under Article II, could direct individual prosecutions if he so chose. The Supreme Court in United States v. Nixon left the issue unresolved and has never revisited it.

This article addresses the question of presidential power principally from an historical perspective. It argues that the Department of Justice is independent of the President, and its decisions in individual cases and investigations are largely immune from his interference or direction. This does not result from any explicit constitutional or legislative mandate, but is rather based on an evolving understanding of prosecutorial independence and professional norms.

American democratic discourse has included the value of independent prosecutions from its inception, and scholars have debated how much this concept influenced the initial structure of American government. In the late 18th century, federal prosecutors enjoyed a significant degree of independence from the White House, both because of the diffuse local nature of federal prosecutions and the vague and overlapping lines of authority. As federal law grew in scope and complexity, there was an increased need to consolidate and rationalize the legal arm of the government. Ultimately the Department of Justice assumed this function under the executive branch. In 1870 when it created the law department, Congress was not overly concerned that partisan politics would infiltrate and undermine the rule of law, because at the time expertise, including professional norms for attorneys, were considered the ultimate protection against partisan corruption. In arguing that professional norms operated as an internal barrier between the Department of Justice and the remainder of the executive branch, this Article contributes to a growing debate about intra-branch checks and balances.

Keywords: President, Unitary Executive, Executive Power, Professional Ethics, Prosecutors, Prosecutorial Independence, Attorney General

Suggested Citation

Roiphe, Rebecca and Green, Bruce A., Can the President Control the Department of Justice? (February 20, 2018). Alabama Law Review, Forthcoming, Fordham Law Legal Studies Research Paper, Available at SSRN:

Rebecca Roiphe (Contact Author)

New York Law School ( email )

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New York, NY 10013
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212-431-2804 (Phone)

Bruce A. Green

Fordham University School of Law ( email )

140 West 62nd Street
New York, NY 10023
United States
212-636-6851 (Phone)
212-636-6899 (Fax)

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