When political winds of change buffet the nation’s governmental institutions, career employees often keep them from veering too far from their missions. At the U.S. Justice Department, Douglas Letter, director of the Civil Division appellate staff, has been one of those mainstays for four decades, according to former department officials.
Letter is leaving the Justice Department at the end of January to take positions as a visiting professor at Georgetown University Law Center and a senior litigator at the center’s Institute for Constitutional Advocacy and Protection. The institute’s faculty director is Georgetown law professor and Hogan Lovells partner Neal Katyal.
“Doug Letter personifies what is best about the Justice Department and at the same time is typical of DOJ lawyers: dedicated, smart and sacrificed to serve his country,” former U.S. Attorney General Eric Holder Jr. said in a tweet. “Thank you for your service Doug. Job well done.”
President Donald Trump’s drumbeat of criticism of the Justice Department—and reports of tension among the ranks of career lawyers working with new leadership—could have influenced Letter’s decision to leave what one colleague said was his “dream job.” Letter was not immediately reached for comment Wednesday.
Letter’s plans were revealed first by his former Justice Department colleagues on Twitter on the same day Trump had again used the social media platform to criticize the Justice Department under U.S. Attorney General Jeff Sessions. This time, Trump cast the Justice Department as a shadowy “deep state” for not pursuing any action against Hillary Clinton, her aide Huma Abedin and former FBI Director James Comey.
Joshua Geltzer, the executive director of the Institute for Constitutional Advocacy and Protection, described Letter as “one of the finest litigators around.” He added: “Like many of us involved with ICAP, he’ll bring his experience in government to the critical mission of defending our constitutional way of life through strategic litigation. Our whole ICAP team, as well as the Georgetown students who’ll get to learn from him, will benefit from the incredible talent and vision that Doug will bring to the Georgetown Law Center campus and to ICAP’s work.”
That work has included a lawsuit on behalf of the city of Charlottesville, Virginia, against militia and white nationalist groups at last summer’s deadly rally there. Other matters include defending so-called “sanctuary city” policies and challenging money bail systems that keep poor defendants jailed for their inability to pay.
Letter, a graduate of the University of California, Berkeley School of Law, joined the Justice Department right out of law school in 1978 under the Attorney General’s Honors Program. Within the Civil Division’s appellate staff, he has served as terrorism litigation counsel and appellate litigation counsel. In 1994-95, he was detailed to the White House as associate counsel to President Bill Clinton.
Letter is currently the department’s representative on the Federal Rules of Appellate Procedure Committee. He has received numerous department awards for his service.
During his 40 years at Justice, Letter has argued cases before the U.S. Supreme Court and each of the U.S. Courts of Appeals. He has handled primarily cases involving national security, separation of powers, executive authority, First Amendment, civil and criminal enforcement of consumer protection laws and the False Claims Act.
“You can’t think of anyone more respected in the appellate community than Doug,” said former DOJ appellate litigator Robert Loeb of Orrick, Herrington & Sutcliffe. “His fingerprints are on some of the most important appellate and Supreme Court decisions of the last 30 years.”
Georgetown’s Martin Lederman, another DOJ veteran, said there are “armies of thousands who have had the privilege of working with Doug. I’m thrilled I’ll be able to do so again at GULC.”
And there was a sense of institutional loss from Brookings Institution fellow Benjamin Wittes, who tweeted: “This is a very big deal—and a very sad thing. Doug Letter has run this office for a long time. He is an institution guy who has represented administrations of both parties through some of their toughest litigations. It says worlds that he won’t be representing this one any more.”