independent counsel, in U.S. law, a judicially appointed investigator of charges of misdeeds by high government officials. Originally termed "special prosecutor," the position was first created by the 1978 Ethics in Government Act. Prompted by the Watergate affair, the purpose of the law was to avoid the conflict of interest that might develop if the executive branch (i.e., the Justice Dept.) investigated its own officials. The act expired in 1992, but a new independent counsel law was passed in 1994. The new law also permitted the investigation of members of Congress. The request for an appointment of an independent counsel was made by the attorney general; the counsel was appointed by an independent judicial board. An independent counsel was used to investigate the Iran-contra affair, Whitewater, and the Lewinsky scandal. In 1999, following prosecutor Kenneth Starr's confrontations with President Bill Clinton and the impeachment of the president, the law again expired and was not renewed. The attorney general now has sole responsibility for appointing outside prosecutors.
The Columbia Electronic Encyclopedia, 6th ed. Copyright © 2012, Columbia University Press. All rights reserved.