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Prosecution: United States Attorney - Daily Operations

justice department attorneys approval

Although the Justice Department's supervision of United States attorneys has increased in recent years, the United States attorney retains substantial independence. As noted above, the United States attorney's daily operations remain largely free of centralized control by Justice Department officials in Washington, D.C. United States attorneys are explicitly vested with "plenary authority" over prosecutions in their districts. And even when the Justice Department establishes national prosecutorial priorities in the interest of allocating limited resources in such a way as to achieve an effective nationwide law enforcement program, United States attorneys may still establish their own priorities, "within the national priorities, in order to concentrate their resources on problems of particular local or regional significance" (U.S. Department of Justice, 1997).

To be sure, there are areas in which the Justice Department exercises more direct supervision. With regard to a handful of offenses, for instance, including the Racketeer Influenced and Corrupt Organizations Act, 18 U.S.C. §§ 1961 et seq., which is often used to prosecute organized crime, central approval to prosecute must be obtained in order to ensure some uniformity of charging standards. Tax prosecutions are also subject to more intense central control. The Solicitor General must authorize all appeals taken by U.S. attorneys. Any decision to seek or not to seek the death penalty must be approved by the attorney general. Justice Department officials in Washington also resolve interdistrict jurisdictional disputes that may arise among U.S. attorneys.

In addition, Congress has enacted legislation requiring more centralized control of some of the investigative tactics employed by federal prosecutors. Thus, high-ranking Justice Department approval is required before prosecutors may seek warrants for various forms of electronic eavesdropping. Applications for orders compelling the testimony of immunized witnesses must be signed by officials working more directly under the supervision of the attorney general. The Justice Department itself, as a matter of internal regulation, requires that central approval be obtained before an indictment is sought charging a person with a crime that has already been the subject of prosecution by local authorities. Central approval must also be obtained before subpoenas are issued to attorneys for information relating to the representation of clients.

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