EXPLAINER: What are special counsels and what do they do?

The appointment of a special counsel to oversee the Justice Department probes into the discovery of classified documents at the home and former office of President Joe Biden has focused renewed attention on the role such prosecutors have played in modern American history. A special counsel is an attorney appointed to investigate, and possibly prosecute, a case in which the Justice Department perceives itself as having a conflict or where it’s deemed to be in the public interest to have someone outside the government come in and take responsibility for a matter. Robert Hur, a former U.S. attorney in Maryland, is now the third special counsel currently in use by the Justice Department.