August 4, 2022
Congress established the Department of Justice in 1870, overseen by the attorney general, to protect civil rights in the southern states after state legislators and state law enforcement officers refused to treat their Black neighbors as equals. If the states would not honor the principle of equality before the law, the federal government would.
The importance of federal protections for equal rights is today’s central story.
Today, Attorney General Merrick Garland announced federal charges against four Louisville, Kentucky, police officers in the death of Breonna Taylor in 2020. Taylor was killed in a raid on March 13, 2020, in her apartment after law enforcement officers broke in looking for a drug suspect while she and her boyfriend, Kenneth Walker, slept.
When the police broke in, Walker fired a single shot from his handgun—which he owned legally—hitting an officer in the thigh. Officers shot back, firing 32 times. Six shots hit Taylor.
This morning, the FBI arrested 40-year-old former Metro Police detective Joshua Jaynes, who lied on the search warrant for the raid and was subsequently fired. Sergeant Kyle Meany, 35; Officer Kelly Hanna Goodlett, 35; and former detective Brett Hankison, 46; were also charged with offenses including, variously, lying on the search warrant and obstructing investigators.
Jaynes, Meany, and Goodlett are charged with lying to get the search warrant for Taylor’s apartment, thus violating Taylor’s Fourth Amendment protection from unreasonable search and seizure..
Hankison was charged with reckless gunfire that endangered Taylor’s neighbors and with using “unconstitutionally excessive force.” He, too, was fired from the department after bullets from his gun, shot randomly into Taylor’s apartment, went through the walls into the neighboring apartment. A Jefferson County jury acquitted him on state charges of wanton endangerment earlier this year. He was the only officer previously charged in Taylor’s death. State attorney general Daniel Cameron’s office did not recommend charges against any others, and Cameron said the grand jury chose not to indict other officers. Some jurors later said that was not true.
The Justice Department did not charge the officers whose shots hit Taylor because they did not know the search warrant was based on false statements.
The Department of Justice is also suing the state of Idaho to protect abortion rights. In 2020, state legislators passed a so-called trigger law to go into effect if—and now, when—the Supreme Court overturned Roe v. Wade. The Dobbs v. Jackson Women’s Health decision of June means the new law will go into effect later this month, creating an almost total ban on abortion. The Justice Department is suing on the grounds that a federal law, the Emergency Medical Treatment and Labor Act (EMTLA), requires any hospital that takes Medicare money to “provide medical treatment necessary to stabilize that condition before transferring or discharging the patient," thus requiring doctors to treat patients with ectopic pregnancies or other emergency medical issues.
Idaho attorney general Lawrence Wasden said the lawsuit was "politically motivated," but Garland pointed out that with the Dobbs ruling, the Supreme Court turned the issue of abortion over to the people’s elected representatives and that Congress, which passed the EMTLA, certainly qualified. Garland pointed to the supremacy clause of the Constitution, which directs that federal laws take precedence over state laws, as proof of the justice of the government’s position.
The supremacy clause reads: “This Constitution, and the Laws of the United States which shall be made in Pursuance thereof; and all Treaties made, or which shall be made, under the Authority of the United States, shall be the supreme Law of the Land; and the Judges in every State shall be bound thereby, any thing in the Constitution or Laws of any State to the Contrary notwithstanding.”
But as journalist Brian Tyler Cohen noted today, the people who killed Breonna Taylor “wouldn’t have been charged and arrested if Trump won in 2020. Voting has consequences.” He meant that presidents choose the attorney general in charge of the Department of Justice, and their appointees are not always dedicated to the law.
The truth of Cohen’s statement showed today when in a hearing of the Senate Judiciary Committee, FBI director Christopher Wray told Senator Sheldon Whitehouse (D-RI) that the Trump White House oversaw the background investigation of then–Supreme Court nominee Brett Kavanaugh. The more than 4500 tips about him sent to an FBI hotline were separated out and sent to the White House without investigation, and the FBI interviewed only the people the White House asked them to. They completed a supplemental background check in four days after Kavanaugh was accused of sexual assault, and they did not interview either him or the woman who publicly accused him.
Wray insisted this sort of limitation is standard practice under both Republican and Democratic presidencies, but an examination last year suggests that the memorandum of understanding on which Wray apparently relied does not give the White House the power to limit such investigations.
The dangers of a justice system under the control of one man became clear today when a Russian court sentenced American women's basketball star Brittney Griner to 9.5 years in a penal colony for drug smuggling after authorities allegedly found less than a gram of cannabis oil in her luggage. Griner was arrested on March 6, just ten days after Russia invaded Ukraine, and her arrest, conviction, and sentence appear to be a way to pressure the U.S. administration.
Biden’s Justice Department does, in fact, appear to be adhering to the idea that we must all be equal before the law. An exclusive story from CNN today said that Trump’s lawyers are in talks with the Department of Justice about a criminal probe of his efforts to overturn the 2020 election. But, as legal analyst Teri Kanefield points out, the leak of this information is almost certainly coming from the Trump camp, which seems to think an indictment might be coming and wants to get out in front of the story. Kanefield might well be right. Tonight, Fox News Channel host Laura Ingraham, who was in contact with Trump chief of staff Mark Meadows during the January 6 crisis, ran a graphic suggesting the Department of Justice was playing politics rather than defending the law. It said: “If you can’t beat him, indict him.”
This was a good day. We have been seeing Garland and his office step up to the plate. It is very important to actually hear from him because we know he is sharpening his tools on a leather strap. The police officers who are being arrested and indicted is sending a very clear message by the DOJ to not mess with our laws. Those who do, will be pursued and prosecuted. Breonna Taylor and her boyfriend have been vindicated, finally. Even though there is much more to accomplish, things are happening and just when we really need it. I am taking comfort in that.
Congratulations on your election to the American Academy of Arts and Sciences. Richly deserved is undersaid.