Last week, former Mayor Rudy Giuliani stumbled through yet another interview on CNN, acknowledging his role in conduct at the center of the House’s impeachment inquiry against President Trump — the effort by the president to lean on the newly elected Ukrainian leader to investigate a company on which Joe Biden’s son Hunter served — and, by extension, Joe Biden himself.
It was characteristic Giuliani: an admission of misconduct both breathtaking in its corruption and impressive for its chutzpah. For those who just tuned in to the Giuliani show, it raises the question: Where did the president get this guy?
The answer is the Southern District of New York.
Before Giuliani’s current turn as the president’s apologist, and before his previous stint as America’s mayor in the aftermath of the 9/11 attacks, he planted the seeds to his rise to power during his not-so-humble beginnings as a New York City federal prosecutor.
Few positions in government come with as much authority and as little outside oversight, and few that provide such a clear path to wealth and influence.
Giuliani is hardly the only alum from New York’s federal districts to have a profound impact on our national politics. Long before former FBI Director Jim Comey cast himself as a pivotal character in the Trump presidency, he also held the Southern District’s top job. Comey’s one-time foil, Loretta Lynch, became the nation’s first African-American female attorney general on the strength of her comparatively understated career in Brooklyn’s Eastern District. The list goes on: Preet Bharara, Mary Jo White, even outspoken Supreme Court Justice Felix Frankfurter.
The city’s U.S. attorney’s offices operate with authority unparalleled among the nation’s 92 other federal districts. Here, ambitious junior “line prosecutors” work sprawling jurisdictions ripe with big money, corrupt politicians, aspiring terrorists and organized crime figures. And they operate within a tradition of independence. Prosecutors push cases that may put them at odds with their colleagues around the country or superiors at Main Justice. This fertile proving ground makes for powerful careers for attorneys long after their brief tenure in government.
The courtrooms in either the Southern or Eastern District aren’t forbidding and impersonal machines of justice. They’re familiar and collegial because the attorneys and judges in criminal cases often share the career-defining experience of having served in the U.S. attorney’s office.
When Michael Cohen faced sentencing in the Southern District for, among other things, violating campaign finance laws at the direction of the president, nearly every attorney in the courtroom, from the prosecutors representing the Southern District to the defense attorneys representing Cohen had come up, like Giuliani, through the U.S. attorney’s office a few hundred yards away.
The effect of this: in New York City’s federal courts, we don’t have a criminal justice system. Instead, it is a criminal justice society — a small, exclusive caste of former federal prosecutors whose power and influence extend far beyond our courthouses.
This influence takes a much uglier face in public view — when we see former federal prosecutors taking on wealthy clients accused of generation-defining crimes. Former U.S. Attorney for the Southern District of New York Mary Jo White recently appeared as counsel and spokesperson members of the Sackler family. (She is only the latest former U.S. attorney for the Southern District hired by those considered responsible for the nation’s opioid crisis. Giuliani helped secure a deal for Purdue Pharma that kept their executives out of jail and, more important, kept them in the drug business.)
To criticize this revolving door is to profess ignorance of how things work. The notion that a trial-tested former federal prosecutor would not convert their experience and relationships cultivated in government service to material gain is the sort of naivete hammered out of people when their first law school student loan comes due.
Should we require our former federal prosecutors to take a monastic vow? That would be unrealistic. But we should probably start looking at their influence with a little more cynicism. They’re lawyers and operators, not white knights.
Dwyer is the author of “The Districts: Stories of American Justice from the Federal Courts.” He teaches at the Arthur L. Carter Institute of Journalism at New York University.