HomeTop StoriesExplainer-US special counsels operate with independence and a spotlight

Explainer-US special counsels operate with independence and a spotlight

WASHINGTON (Reuters) – The appointment of an outside prosecutor to investigate President Joe Biden’s son, Hunter, means there are now three special counsel investigations that could play a prominent role in next year’s election.

Attorney General Merrick Garland tapped David Weiss on Friday to review whether Hunter Biden violated federal tax and gun laws. Weiss indicated that he would likely take the president’s son to court.

Previously, Garland appointed Jack Smith to investigate matters related to President Donald Trump’s attempts to stay in power after he lost the 2020 election and classified documents found at the Florida estate where he lives.

Garland also appointed a special counsel to review classified documents found in Biden’s home.

What is special advice?

Special counsel are appointed to handle sensitive cases — usually involving political figures or allegations of serious government misconduct — with more independence than is usually afforded to federal investigators.

Under Justice Department rules, the Attorney General can appoint one when the Department would have a conflict of interest or when he or she decides it would be in the “public interest” to have an investigation conducted by an outside attorney. to carry out.

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The attorney general determines the scope of the investigation, but the special counsel also has the authority to investigate new crimes that occur during the investigation, such as obstruction of justice.

Unlike other federal prosecutors, special counsel work without day-to-day oversight by the Justice Department. But the attorney general can still overrule decisions about how — and whether — an investigation should proceed.

What powers do special counsel have?

They have the powers of a federal prosecutor’s office: to oversee investigations, decide whether to prosecute and, if so, bring those cases to trial.

They are required to abide by the Justice Department’s internal rules, including policies that describe how to decide whether to press charges.

They also operate with greater public scrutiny. Unlike other cases, the Attorney General must notify Congress if he or she reverses any of the Special Counsel’s decisions. And the special counsel must file a report with the reasons for charging or denying people. Those reports can become public, something that rarely happens in other federal investigations.

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Who can be a special counsel?

Usually, a special counsel is a lawyer brought in from outside the Department of Justice. Such was the case with Smith and with Robert Mueller, the former FBI director who investigated allegations that the Trump campaign had colluded with Russia before the 2016 election.

But in some cases, attorneys general have appointed attorneys from within the bureau as special counsel to bolster investigations they were already supervising.

What is the background of the three special councils?

Hunter Biden case: Weiss has been the U.S. attorney in Delaware since Trump appointed him to the post in 2018. He was a prosecutor in that office before taking the top job.

Biden Case Documents: Robert Hur was the U.S. Attorney in Maryland from 2018 to 2021. Trump nominated him for the job. He had been a federal prosecutor in Maryland, worked at the headquarters of the Department of Justice and was a partner in a private law firm.

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Trump cases: Smith is a former federal prosecutor who led the unit responsible for investigating public corruption. In 2018, he became the chief prosecutor investigating war crimes in the Kosovo war.

How do they differ from independent advisors?

After the Watergate scandal, the government handled the most sensitive cases by appointing independent counsel.

Those attorneys operated with an even greater degree of independence than special counsel. The attorney general would seek their appointment, but they would be placed in the position by a special panel of federal judges, and those judges could prevent defense counsel from being fired.

When the statute for appointing independent counsel expired in 1999, it was replaced by the Justice Department’s existing rules for appointing special counsel.

(Reporting by Brad Heath; editing by Don Durfee)

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