Utah’s Sen. Mike Lee leaves Russia probe to others, focuses on criminal justice reform, immigration and civil asset forfeiture in questioning attorney general nominee

(Leah Hogsten | Tribune file photo) Sen. Mike Lee, who is a former federal prosecutor and Supreme Court clerk, fields questions about the possibility of Lee filling the Supreme Court vacancy from members of the media after speaking about Utah's public lands at a forum hosted by the Sutherland Institute, June 29, 2018.

Sen. Mike Lee, R-Utah, made no mention of President Donald Trump or the ongoing investigation of Special Counsel Robert Mueller on Tuesday during questioning of William Barr, Trump’s nominee to replace Jeff Sessions as U.S. attorney general.

While other members of the Senate Judiciary Committee pressed Barr on his willingness to protect Mueller’s investigation and his deference to presidential authority, Lee used his time seeking assurances on civil asset forfeiture, antitrust protections, criminal justice reform and prosecutorial discretion and illegal immigration.

On immigration, Lee noted that prominent Democrats have suggested that enforcement of existing law and protection of the border is “somehow immoral, that it’s somehow wrong.” And he asked Barr to elaborate on “why it’s important we draw a clear moral distinction between legal immigration and illegal immigration.”

Barr said it’s “unjust” to allow some people to “come crashing in” with claims of asylum [who] are not properly vetted when others have been waiting years or even more than a decade to enter the country through normal legal channels.

“We have built a great society in the United States,” Barr said. “A very large majority of the world lives under our poverty level and for them even being poor in the United States would be a step up.… If it is unrestricted a lot of people would come here — more than we could possibly accommodate.”

Lee interrupted to ask, if U.S. borders were thrown wide open, “Who would that harm first and foremost: Would it be the wealthy who who would be most immediately harmed by that?”

“No,” Barr said. “It wouldn’t.”

On another topic, Lee, a frequent critic of asset forfeiture, in which money or property is seized from individuals suspected of committing a crime, compared it to a “speed trap” used to fund law enforcement activity.

“Too often, law enforcement agencies have too strong an incentive to use civil asset forfeiture in a way that lines their own coffers,” Lee said to Barr. “Do you think that the speed-trap mentality is a problem and, if so, is that something you’ll work to address?”

Barr responded that he is concerned about the incentives behind asset forfeiture, saying “constant vigilance is necessary.” But he added that the seizure of goods and money can be a valuable tool in law enforcement.

“I want to make sure we strike the right balance,” he said.

Lee also questioned Barr about the First Step Act, the bipartisan package of criminal justice reforms Lee co-wrote, which was approved last year. Lee said the U.S. attorney general could potentially undermine the act through appointments to panels like the independent review commission, and asked Barr to commit to selecting “honest brokers” if ultimately confirmed to the post.

Lee was the last senator to question Barr during the morning session of Tuesday’s two-part hearing. He concluded his first round of questioning by asking Barr about policies enacted by former Attorney General John Ashcroft that direct prosecutors to charge defendants with the most serious and readily provable offense.

“You intend to continue that policy?” Lee asked Barr.

“Yes,” Barr responded, “unless someone tells me a good reason not to.”