Access to The Champion archive is one of many exclusive member benefits. It’s normally restricted to just NACDL members. However, this content, and others like it, is available to everyone in order to educate the public on why criminal justice reform is a necessity.
Since becoming Attorney General, John Ashcroft has waged a campaign of secrecy, intimidation, and coercion to transfer power from the Legislative and Judicial Branches to his own office. His efforts to expand and solidify this power are now accelerating. He must be stopped. Immediately.
If Ashcroft continues to successfully browbeat those attempting to slow his attack on our Constitution, the damage may be beyond repair, and the consequences disastrous.
In short, Ashcroft has orchestrated the elimination of fundamental rights, the chilling of political speech and dissent, the severe constraint of our judiciary’s independence, an increase in our overflowing prison population, and a blatant disregard for states’ rights. He is attacking the very laws that protect us from the potential — and often real — tyranny of the federal government.
Our constitutional system of government is too successful and too precious to be subverted and permanently disfigured by this demagogue. While history will prove him an enemy of the state, with each new day he continues to abuse his power in order to substitute his judgment for the will of the people — and the judiciary. We must make a stand against his slow and steady coup.
USA PATRIOT Act
Ashcroft’s supporters assert that he has acted within his powers, and that his actions are therefore beyond reproach. They point to the fact that Congress overwhelmingly passed the USA PATRIOT Act, which was written by Ashcroft’s Justice Department, allowed scant time for review, and which granted him unprecedented powers — while radically restricting individual rights. They note that Congress overwhelmingly supported the Feeney Amendment, which was also supported by the DOJ, approved without a hearing, and which directs the federal Sentencing Commission to amend the guidelines to “substantially reduce” the incidence of “downward departures,” thus further transferring to him the power of the federal judiciary.
His supporters note that it is within his power to direct his federal prosecutors to charge the longest, most serious provable offense in all criminal cases, not to plea bargain for sentences that would constitute a “downward departure,” and to report all judicial “downward departures” not approved by him to his Justice Department. And they note that it is his prerogative to eliminate DOJ regulations directing federal prosecutors to respect states’ rights to refuse to impose the death penalty, and his right to overturn prosecutors’ recommendations against it in individual cases.
Granted, his supporters have a point. The means Ashcroft has employed to transform our justice system are not illegal.
But as a criminal defense lawyer who understands the power of the state, the importance of individual rights to preventing injustice, and the negative influence of politics on our system of justice, I say that these moves violate the American freedoms that I grew up with, and that I want to perpetuate. I say it is wrong to strip judges of their ability to dispense justice, transferring their discretion instead to politically motivated adversaries without regard for the factors involved in individual cases. And I can say that indiscriminately throwing the book at every federal offender does not help, but hinders our ability to create safe communities.
If, as a fellow criminal defense lawyer, you share my concern, please join me in speaking out — and fighting back — against Ashcroft’s attempted coup. You won’t be alone. The House upon the motion of a conservative Republican, recently voted to defund Ashcroft’s “sneak and peek” policy, which had allowed the government — at Ashcroft’s discretion— to repeatedly search private residences without notifying residents. Under the leadership of Senator Edward Kennedy and Representative John Conyers, support is also building for the JUDGES Act (see www.nacdl.org), which would be a major first step toward restoring federal judicial discretion.
On another front, conservative U.S. Supreme Court Justice Anthony Kennedy — a supporter of the death penalty and “three strikes” life sentences — recently told the American Bar Association that, “The Federal Sentencing Guidelines should be revised downward,” because they resulted in “our resources (being) misspent, our punishments too severe, our sentences too long.” And at the local level, over 150 communities from around the country have passed resolutions declaring their opposition to the PATRIOT Act. As each day passes, more questions are being raised about the attorney general’s march against freedom. And as the truth emerges, the opposition grows.
Attorney General Ashcroft has proven that what were once fundamental rights are now uncertain — and that his thirst for power knows no bounds. Together, we must show Ashcroft, President Bush, Congress and politicians across America that we will not be scared into relinquishing our individual rights, but will stand and fight to protect them.
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John Ashcroft must be stopped. And if that is to happen, you must do your part. Write your U.S. Senator or Representative, submit an op-ed or letter to the editor, talk to your local legislators, talk to your neighbors, speak before a community group. Explain the danger of John Ashcroft’s assault on our Constitution. Criminal defense lawyers understand the threat John Ashcroft presents better than anyone; it is incumbent upon us to do something about it.
Whatever the form, we must all do what we can to stem the Attorney General’s tyrannical attack on our rights. While we still have the right and the power to do so. Our freedoms depend on it.