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Abstract

Suppose the president sought to serve as prosecutor-in-chief, telling prosecutors when to initiate or dismiss criminal charges in individual cases and making other discretionary decisions that are normally reserved to trained professionals familiar with the facts, law, and traditions of the U.S. Department of Justice. To what extent may prosecutors follow the president’s direction? In recent presidential administrations, the president has respected prosecutorial independence; while making policy decisions, the president deferred to the Attorney General and subordinate federal prosecutors to conduct individual criminal cases. In a recent article, we argued that this is as it should be because the president has no constitutional or statutory authority to control federal criminal prosecutions. But suppose one comes to the contrary conclusion—that the president, as chief executive, has authority to decide how individual criminal prosecutions should be conducted. In this Article, we explore the consequences for prosecutors who receive the president’s orders. We argue here that federal prosecutors cannot invariably and unquestioningly follow the president’s direction because doing so would violate ethical rules and professional norms. Further, because prosecutors’ professional obligations are created by courts and endorsed by federal statute, presidential control over prosecutorial decision-making would lead to serious separation-of-powers concerns. Particularly, the integrity of the judicial system depends on the ethical rules at issue. By exploring these separation-of-powers concerns, this Article contributes to a growing debate about the power of the executive over prosecution and further supports the independence of the DOJ and federal prosecutors.

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