Introduction

The United States government is split into three branches: the legislative, judicial, and executive branches. You may have heard that it is the job of the legislative branch to create the law, the job of the judicial branch to interpret the law, and the job of the executive branch to enforce the law. But how does the executive branch go about enforcing the law?

The Answer

One way is through the Department of Justice, which includes multiple different law enforcement agencies focusing on a wide array of legal issues including civil rights, corruption, drugs, firearms, unfair business practices, and violent crime.

Department of Justice

The Department of Justice, also known as the Justice Department or the DOJ, is an executive department of the government of the United States that is responsible for law enforcement. The Department of Justice is headed by the attorney general and contains several law enforcement agencies, the most prominent of which is the FBI. 

How It Works

The roots of the Department of Justice can be traced to the Judiciary Act of 1789, which established the position of attorney general, as well as the U.S. Marshals Service and the U.S. Attorneys, two important law enforcement agencies. The attorney general, who is appointed by the president and confirmed by the Senate, was originally a part-time position tasked with advising the president on legal matters and representing the United States in court. As the responsibilities of the job grew, it became evident that more infrastructure was needed So, in 1870, Congress created the Department of Justice, with the attorney general at the head. Since then, the Justice Department has grown into a department of numerous different law enforcement agencies with over one hundred thousand employees and a budget of tens of billions of dollars. The attorney general serves as the highest-ranking law enforcement official in the United States as well as the chief legal advisor to the president. 

The responsibilities outlined in the Justice Department’s mission statement include enforcing the law, ensuring public safety, preventing and controlling crime, seeking just punishment for people guilty of breaking the law, and ensuring fair and impartial justice for all Americans.  The DOJ operates through several agencies in order to carry out its mission.

The oldest agencies in the Department of Justice are the aforementioned U.S. Marshals Service and U.S. Attorneys. The U.S. Marshals Service transports federal prisoners, protects federal witnesses, apprehends wanted fugitives, and protects members of the federal court system. The U.S. Attorneys are tasked with prosecuting criminal cases initiated by the United States government as well as representing the United States in court. 

The most significant law enforcement arm of the Justice Department is the Federal Bureau of Investigations, or FBI. The FBI began as the Bureau of Investigations in 1908 but was renamed the FBI in 1935. The primary roles of the FBI are to defend the United States against terrorist threats and enforce criminal laws. A driving factor in the FBI’s prominence today was the leadership of J. Edgar Hoover, who implemented many changes and shaped the way the FBI operated in his forty-eight years as director from 1924 to 1972. 

Other notable agencies under the umbrella of the Justice Department include the Bureau of Prisons, or BOP, created in 1930, the Drug Enforcement Administration, or DEA, created in 1973, and the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms, and Explosives, or ATF, which was transferred to the DOJ in 2003. 

Throughout its history, the Justice Department has played an important role in the enforcement of antitrust legislation, or laws designed to prevent companies from becoming too large and controlling too much of a given industry. The Antitrust Division of the DOJ was created in 1933, but the DOJ has been combating antitrust violations since the passage of the Sherman Antitrust Act in 1890 and the Clayton Act in 1914, two laws designed to protect consumers from unfair, monopolistic business practices. In addition to the select branches of the DOJ that have already been mentioned, there are numerous others with varying focuses and functions. 

Why Care?

If the Department of Justice exists to perpetuate justice in the United States, then the citizens of the United States must ask if the DOJ is living up to its own name. Are the punishments handed out by the DOJ actually just? To what extent is justice administered in a way that is fair and impartial? Is having an attorney general that is appointed by the president and confirmed by the Senate the best way to ensure a fair and impartial justice system or is there a better method? Does the DOJ ever prioritize national security over justice? Does the DOJ really provide justice for all Americans? These are just some of the questions that one could explore to discover if the Justice Department is truly delivering on its promise of justice for all.

    Learn More

    1. “150 Years of the Department of Justice.” , The United States Department of Justice, 3 Mar. 2020, www.justice.gov/history/timeline/150-years-department-justice#event-1208301.
    2. “Organization, Mission and Functions Manual.” , The United States Department of Justice, 26 Sept. 2019, www.justice.gov/jmd/organization-mission-and-functions-manual.
    3. “Organizational Chart.” , The United States Department of Justice, 5 Feb. 2018, www.justice.gov/agencies/chart.

    Think Further

    1. Why is the Justice Department important?
    2. The final phrase of the Department of Justice’s mission statement is “to ensure fair and impartial justice for all Americans.” Do you think the DOJ lives up to this standard? Why or why not?
    3. What is justice? Why is it fundamentally important?

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