Thursday, March 15, 2007


Firing of Federal Attorneys - a Scandal?

The Bush Administration is doing its best to downplay the importance of the firing of the federal attorneys. Bush's man in the Justice Department, Alberto Gonzales, now says that "mistakes were made." They must have been serious mistakes because even some stalwart conservative Senators, including Mr. Cornyn of Texas and Mr. Sununu of New Hampshire, are disturbed by the firings. I believe that the first story that came out was that the individuals had been terminated for poor performance. That story didn't last long. Some of the fired prosecutors publicly stated that they had recently been given very good performance reviews. Then some nosy reporter dug out some memos and e-mails between the President's lawyer, Harriet Miers, and a functionary in the Justice Department in which they discussed either firing all of the attorneys or some of them. Attorneys would be fired or terminated if they were reluctant or uneasy about vigorously carrying out the President's agenda. An example given was not strongly enforcing the immigration laws; another example was not vigorously prosecuting cases of voter fraud.

Now Mr. Gonzales appears before Congress and admits that mistakes were made. One mistake that got even the conservative supporters of the President irritated was that the first story, that the decisions were strictly Justice Department decisions, wasn't true. Now it is known that the White House had an important hand in deciding whom to fire and whom to keep. For example, the US Attorney for Little Rock was replaced to make room for a protege of Karl Rove. California Senator Feinstein was irritated that the US Attorney for Los Angeles had been fired, shortly after prosecuting and achieving the conviction and sentence to prison of Republican Duke Cunningham for bribery. Another US Attorney, the one for Albuquerque, stated that a Republican Senator and a Republican Representative had questioned him about the status of an investigation into corruption by a Democratic official, especially whether there was a sealed indictment that would become public before the election last November.

The President's apologists point out that US Attorneys are appointed by and serve at the pleasure of the President. Newly elected Presidents customarily replace attorneys appointed by a previous President of the other party. No law was broken in firing the US Attorneys, so why the big fuss?

It's legal. It's still a scandal. It shows that our system of justice is subject to manipulation according to the whim of the President. US Attorneys can be pressured, or at least influenced, to conduct investigations and prosecutions that are favored by the President and his party. In a Republican Administration, corruption by Republicans will be hidden and corruption by Democrats will be exposed and publicized. In a Democratic Administration, corruption by Republicans will be exposed, publicized, and prosecuted while Democratic corruption will be hidden.

One rather obvious solution is to change the office of US Attorney from a political appointment to a career civil service position. US Attorneys, just like federal judges, should be insulated from political pressures.

So also should prosecuting attorneys of smaller government units: States, counties, and cities. It's a scandal that we in the United States elect county and city prosecutors. An attorney who has to run for reelection in two or four years is certainly under political pressure in dealing with cases that have acquired public notoriety. The public demands that someone be punished for the heinous act. The pressure is intense for the police to find a suitable scape goat and for the prosecutor to convict. Every now and then we learn of a convict who was wrongfully convicted and was serving time for another's crime. I believe that such mistakes would occur less often if prosecutors were not facing reelection.

What can I do besides complain about the situation? I know of no movement to change the way that city, county, and State prosecutors are chosen. I don't know whether the current scandal in Washington will cause Congress to change the law regarding the selection and terms of office of US Attorneys. All I can do is wait and see. Perhaps one of my friends who read this blog will present some suggestions.

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