Leader Blues

Monday, February 12, 2007

EDITORIALS>>Don't politicize U.S. attorneys

The cynic in us warns us that President Bush will not let it become law, but the Senate Judiciary Committee offered a remedy this week to the administration’s power grab in the criminal justice system. The committee, with significant Republican support, approved a bill that would let the Justice Department make interim appointment of federal prosecutors for only 120 days.

If the bill becomes law soon, the Justice Department will have to quickly let its emergency appointee for U.S. attorney for the Eastern District of Arkansas, Timothy Griffin, stand his chances at getting confirmed by the Senate. As matters stood this week, that would not be likely. Sen. Mark Pryor, a sponsor of the bill, said Grifin’s standing had been badly undermined.

Griffin, who gained a reputation as an especially crafty political operative while working for White House political adviser Karl Rove, received an interim appointment after the White House got Bud Cummins to resign. Cummins was the handsome Republican who took on Vic Snyder for the Second District congressional seat in 1996 and was rewarded with the patronage.

He proved to be both competent and nonpolitical. But along with six other prosecutors — all U.S. attorneys are now Republican — Cummins was forced to resign so that people of sterner political loyalty could be installed before the next election.

The Justice Department was able to do that because it had sneaked language into the USA Patriot Act to allow interim appointments without Senate confirmation.

Attorney General Alberto Gonzales insisted that Cummins and the others were ousted because of poor performance in office.

Gonzales’ deputy, testifying later, agreed that Cummins had been doing an outstanding job. What of the others? Carol Lam, the U.S. attorney in San Francisco, had just finished putting U.S. Rep. Randy “Duke” Cunningham behind bars for bribery and shakedowns and was running down other leads in the congressional scandal. Paul Charlton, the federal prosecutor in Arizona, was investigating allegations against Republican Congressman Rick Renzi.

Griffin is an opposition-research specialist. The Judiciary Committee would have questioned him about his role in the voter suppression campaign in Florida black precincts in 2004. The speculation was that his brand of investigation might be useful if Sen. Hillary Clinton is the Democratic nominee for president in 2008. He could mine Whitewater Development Corp. again.

It is precisely on such accounts that checks were established on the appointment of these powerful prosecutors. U.S. attorneys are supposed to protect the judicial system from partisan-inspired prosecutions. Democrats always appoint Democrats and Republicans appoint Republicans, but the checks of confirmation tend to insure that men and women with principle, skill and experience still get the job.

Let’s hope the Senate and House pass the bill.