President Donald Trump’s attempts to politicize the criminal justice system have been anything but reassuring, but his selection of veteran Sacramento lawyer McGregor Scott as U.S. attorney for the Eastern District of California shows he’s capable of getting at least some things right.
Trump could not have found a more qualified chief federal prosecutor for the sprawling district, which runs from the Oregon state line to just north of Bakersfield, and includes Fresno. Scott – currently a white-collar defense lawyer and partner at the law firm Orrick – held the post before, from 2003 to 2009, as a George W. Bush appointee.
As U.S. attorney, Scott oversaw mortgage fraud prosecutions, an important public corruption case out of Stockton, and helped establish a program to pursue damages against companies that ignite fires on federal forests. The Sacramento Bee’s Sam Stanton noted that he also headed the prosecution of a controversial Lodi terror case that defense attorneys are still seeking to overturn.
Before that, Scott was the Shasta County district attorney, taking a lead role in the prosecution of a hate crime spree that included the murders of a gay couple in Redding and arsons of synagogues and an abortion clinic. Last week, U.S. Sen. Dianne Feinstein noted his “nearly 20 years of experience as a prosecutor,” adding: “I believe he will serve the Eastern District well.”
That said, he should not get the job unless he can answer yes to a basic question when he comes before the Senate for confirmation: Will he maintain his independence from this president?
From his firing of FBI head James Comey to his recent demands that the U.S. Justice Department investigate his former political opponent, Hillary Clinton, Trump’s behavior has reflected an unsettling eagerness to abuse his authority and subvert the separation of powers. Democracy rests on the public’s faith that the judiciary will hew to due process, and not be unduly influenced by politics.
“I am not supposed to be involved with the FBI. I’m not supposed to be doing the kind of things that I would love to be doing,” Trump told a radio interviewer, correctly. Then he added: “And I’m very frustrated by it.”
Actually, he’s not merely “frustrated.” He’s actively trying to influence the Justice Department. Every turn in the various investigations into his own campaign’s apparent ties to Russia has generated fresh demands from him for spurious federal crackdowns that might punish his enemies and distract from his own glaring problems.
“Everybody is asking why the Justice Department (and FBI) isn’t looking into all of the dishonesty going on with Crooked Hillary & the Dems,” the president tweeted petulantly last Friday. And: “(T)he Democrats, lead by the legendary Crooked Hillary Clinton, rigged the Primaries! Let’s go FBI & Justice Dept.”
In an administration as crooked as this one, it takes character to keep to the straight and narrow. Scott has been here before: During his earlier stint as U.S. attorney, the Bush administration conducted a scandalous political purge of prosecutors who had shown insufficient partisan fealty, one that cost several friends of Scott’s their jobs.
“One of the great lessons of our history is there must be a wall between the political operation of the White House and the Justice Department,” Scott told now-retired Bee reporter Denny Walsh in a 2008 reflection.
All administrations are entitled to priorities, and Attorney General Jeff Sessions will undoubtedly call the tune, but Scott’s faith in that wall alone is reassuring. His history indicates that his actions will match his words if he is confirmed.