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In A Standoff With Montana Officials, The Justice Department Blinks

The Justice Department announced Tuesday it has resolved a two-year-old standoff with the county attorney in Missoula, Mont., in what was originally a dispute over accusations that local prosecutors weren't doing enough to prosecute rape cases.

Over time, however, the issue turned into something else: a test of the Feds' power to impose reform on local prosecutors. And on that, it looks like the Missoula county attorney has prevailed –- on a technicality.

It all started two years ago, when Justice Department officials arrived in Missoula and accused local authorities of soft-pedaling sexual assault cases. The DOJ's stick, in these cases, is the threat of a federal lawsuit.

To avoid that, the University of Montana soon agreed to implement a program of greater sensitivity to rape and sexual assault, and city prosecutors and Missoula police also agreed to make reforms.

But County Attorney Fred Van Valkenberg defied the Justice Department, something local officials rarely do in these situations. He accused the Feds of "overreaching" and exaggerating the problems. He challenged their right to pressure an elected prosecutor in such a fashion and sued them in federal court.

Van Valkenberg's defiance didn't go unnoticed. The Justice Department under the Obama White House is sometimes accused of bullying local officials into reform. When it threatened to sue the Seattle Police Department, it said it found officers used "unconstitutional" levels of force 20 percent of the time, but it refused to release detailed numbers to back up its claim.

Similarly, Van Valkenberg demanded that Justice support its case that his prosecutors didn't take rape cases seriously enough. He asserted that the DOJ acted imperiously toward him, and defamed his staff of prosecutors, many of whom are women.

"They never once reached out – never once in two years – reached out to work cooperatively with me in this matter," he said in a news conference today.

Van Valkenberg has now signed an agreement with Justice acknowledging that the county attorney is obliged, among other steps, to develop new policies for handling sexual assault cases.

But the crucial difference, in the eyes of the county attorney's office, is that the reforms will take place under the authority of the Montana attorney general, not the Department of Justice. In the memorandum of understanding, the county attorney and the state reaffirm their belief that the DOJ has no authority over elected county attorneys.

For their part, the Feds insist they haven't given up their right to investigate and sue the Missoula county attorney in the future.

For the moment though, it looks like it's the Obama administration's DOJ that blinked.

Copyright 2021 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

Martin Kaste is a correspondent on NPR's National Desk. He covers law enforcement and privacy. He has been focused on police and use of force since before the 2014 protests in Ferguson, and that coverage led to the creation of NPR's Criminal Justice Collaborative.

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