By Jan Wolfe
nWASHINGTON (Reuters) - U.S. Attorney General Merrick Garland faces a Monday deadline to decide whether to appeal a court order criticizing his predecessor William Barr, an early test of his willingness to defend the Justice Department's acts during Donald Trump's presidency.
U.S. District Judge Amy Berman Jackson gave the Justice Department until May 24 to appeal a decision she issued earlier this month that faulted Barr for how he publicly summarized Special Counsel Robert Mueller's 2019 report and ordered the release of a related internal memo.
A group of U.S. Senate Democrats on May 14 urged Garland not to appeal Jackson's decision, saying in a letter that Barr's actions need to be exposed quickly.
"To be clear, these misrepresentations preceded your confirmation as Attorney General, but the Department you now lead bears responsibility for redressing them," the letter stated.
There are competing interests that Garland must balance in making his decision even if he may personally disapprove of Barr's conduct, said Bradley Moss, a national security lawyer in Washington who has been following the litigation.
An appeal would signal to civil servants in the Justice Department that Garland will back them in court when they come under fire, Moss said.
"For Garland, one interest here is the need to defend the honor and integrity of the department," Moss said. "The competing interest, of course, is the desire for some transparency."
Mueller investigated Russia’s role in the 2016 U.S. election, as well as whether Trump tried to impede his probe.
The special counsel's April 2019 report outlined 10 episodes in which Trump tried to get the special counsel fired, limit the scope of his investigation, or otherwise interfere with the probe.
Mueller stopped short of concluding that Trump had committed the crime of obstruction of justice, but did not exonerate him of wrongdoing either, leaving Barr or Congress the option to take action against the Republican president.
Before publicly releasing Mueller's report, Barr sent a letter to congressional leaders and held a news conference that summarized Mueller's findings. Many Democrats have accused Barr of misrepresenting Mueller's findings in order to change the public narrative at the time.
Jackson validated this view in her stinging May 3 decision. She said Barr misrepresented the Mueller report in his letter to Congress, and ordered the release of a 2019 legal memorandum to a government accountability group.
The judge said the memorandum, prepared for Barr as he considered his decision, did not qualify as a protected attorney-client communication.
In her decision, Jackson characterized the memo as a "strategic" document, concluding that Barr had come to a predetermined conclusion not to charge Trump with obstruction of justice.
Her ruling came in a Freedom of Information Act lawsuit brought by Citizens for Responsibility and Ethics in Washington, a liberal watchdog group.
(Reporting by Jan Wolfe; Editing by Scott Malone and Jonathan Oatis)