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Saving Justice

Truth, Transparency, and Trust

By James Comey
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Saving Justice by James Comey

Saving Justice (2021) is a compilation of the lessons James Comey has learned during his long career both as a lawyer and as an employee of the US Justice Department. In particular, Comey recounts the memorable cases he’s been involved in and how he’s learned the importance of the judicial system being separate from the partisanship of American politics.

Key idea 1 of 10

The Reservoir of Trust

When James Comey was 25 years old and fresh out of law school, he got lucky: he landed a clerkship with a newly appointed federal judge in New York City, John M. Walker Jr., the cousin of Vice President George Herbert Walker Bush. This job gave him a perfect opportunity to observe a wide variety of lawyers.

Comey soon noticed something: federal prosecutors were different than other lawyers. 

For starters, they were well dressed, had strong postures, and seemed to exude confidence while also being humble and respectful.

But there was something else, too – something Comey couldn’t immediately explain. The men and women from the US Attorney’s Office seemed to be more widely respected. It was as though, even before they set foot in the courtroom, they’d already been granted a high level of trust. The words they spoke were more readily accepted as truth. Even opposing lawyers were deferential and less willing to question the statements of attorneys working on behalf of the Department of Justice (DOJ).

A year later, Comey joined the DOJ himself, as a junior federal prosecutor in New York. And that’s where he began to truly understand what differentiated federal attorneys from other lawyers: they weren’t motivated by politics or money. Neither Democrat nor Republican, they stood apart from the political world, only taking on cases that they believed in. Simple as that. 

Actually, it’s not always as simple as that. [slight pause] The trust that people have in the DOJ must be continually earned. Comey calls it a reservoir of trust, and this reservoir gets added to when the prosecutors, FBI agents, and leadership within the DOJ uphold their commitment to the truth. But human beings aren’t perfect, and there have been times when DOJ actions have depleted rather than replenished that reservoir. 

Consider the case of Henry Flete. Henry was caught in the middle of a drug bust involving a kilo of cocaine and a big-time dealer from Columbia. But Henry was not big-time. His crime was giving a friend, who had become an informant for the Drug Enforcement Agency, the name of a drug dealer he knew – a name that led the DEA to the big-time Columbian. According to the law, Henry’s involvement, though minor, made him part of an illegal conspiracy. It didn’t matter that he wasn’t really benefiting from this involvement.

As a young prosecutor, Comey didn’t feel right going after Henry. But when he told his superiors this, they didn’t want to hear it. At the time, their boss, Rudy Giuliani, was in the middle of a mayoral campaign that included a tough-on-crime platform. This meant every drug case had to be prosecuted to the fullest extent.

Comey followed orders that time. But the jurors may have sensed that his heart wasn’t fully in it because they decided to acquit Henry. Afterward, Comey told himself that he’d never again prosecute a case he didn’t believe in.

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