Your local chief federal prosecutor--known as a United States attorney--is a man or woman with enormous power over the lives of Americans. Normally, these high ranking federal lawyers operate below the radar level and out of the news. The recent firing of eight U.S. attorneys by the Justice Department has thrust this little-publicized office into the national limelight.
U.S. attorneys represent the federal government in federal trial and appellate courts. There are 93--one for each federal judicial district--and their chief duty is to investigate and prosecute federal criminal charges. The attorneys and their offices fall under the Department of Justice, headed by the U.S. attorney general, who is appointed by the president. Each supervises an office of assistant U.S. attorneys, who are lawyers actually trying the criminal cases on behalf of the federal government.
Importantly, U.S. attorneys are appointed by the president, subject to Senate confirmation, but also can be removed by the president. Traditionally, when there is a change of administrations, they all resign. The U.S. attorneys are then replaced by appointments made by the new president.
Historically, U.S. attorneys have been expected to be nonpartisan, independent and free from political pressure in much the same way as members of the federal judiciary, also appointed by the president. And, there's a good reason for this. Politicians, including the president, are policed, investigated and indicted by them. That is why the recent midterm resignations and firings of United States attorneys are extremely unusual and suspect.
As the individual stories unfold, it is becoming clearer that the firings are a political purge, punishment for federal prosecutors who were not aggressive enough in pursuing opposite-party indictments or who stood in the way of a political appointee who committed to be more aggressive about such indictments. The administration's explanations are that these firings were either for poor performance or were "traditional" exercises of presidential power to remove appointees, are ringing particularly hollow.
It is painfully obvious that these were politically inspired firings. And, indeed, as this column goes to press, the attorney general's own staff counsel has invoked the Fifth Amendment in response to a Senate Judiciary committee subpoena seeking information about White House involvement.
Perhaps what is most disturbing is that the administration seems to have been planning this form of abuse for some time. In 2005, at the request of the administration, the renewal of the Patriot Act contained a last minute amendment, quietly inserted, permitting the president to fill vacant U.S. attorney positions indefinitely without Senate confirmation.
The Senate, in light of these unusual and obviously political firings, has recently awakened and there is proposed legislation to return to the nonpartisan system of replacing United States attorneys. Meanwhile, the backpedaling by senior administration officials to explain how and why these firings happened is certain to lead to further legislative investigations and heads rolling. And, the administration's attempted "politicization" of federal prosecutors has already inspired one prominent indicted Democrat in Philadelphia to announce that he will assert a defense that charges against him are simply partisan.
Independence is the foundation upon which our country was built. Tamper with that and you run the risk of eroding the balance of power. That's why it is critical to preserve the role of federal prosecutors, who are central to the fairness of our justice system.
PHILIP KIRCHER is co-chairman of the commercial litigation department at the law firm of Cozen O'Connor.
May 1, 2007
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