Leader Blues

Monday, February 19, 2007

EDITORIALS>>GOP makes poor choice

Tim Griffin said this week that he would rather not be the United States attorney for the eastern district of Arkansas if it meant that he would have to answer questions about his past political work as others have had to do the past century or so. So he told the Justice Department not to nominate him for the permanent position.

Does that inspire confidence in the courage, independence and competence of the office that prosecutes federal justice in our region? Griffin, a former aide to White House political adviser Karl Rove and a political director for the Republican National Committee, was appointed U.S. attorney in December after the Justice Department forced Bud Cummins to resign. Cummins had been a good soldier in the Republican army but he was deemed to be insufficiently zealous in the party’s cause. As the head prosecutor, the Justice Department acknowledged, he had been outstanding but people in the White House wanted Griffin in the office.

Cummins was one of seven Republican district attorneys across the country who were told to resign to make room for new acolytes who would be on hand for the 2008 elections. They were appointed under a provision quietly inserted last year into a reconstitution of the USAPatriot Act. The administration could appoint U.S. attorneys on an “emergency” basis while Congress was in recess and they would not be subject to Senate confirmation. Historically, appointees have been subject to confirmation.

The appointments took senators, including Republicans, aback. They were unaware that the legislation they had passed carried the exemption for interim appointments of prosecutors. Last week, the Senate Judiciary Committee began work on legislation to restore the important check that the founders created in the distribution of power.

This week, the Justice Department told the Judiciary Committee that it had instructed Cummins to resign because Harriet E. Miers, then the chief White House counsel, wanted Tim Griffin in the office. Miers, who has since departed, is a close friend of Rove. They were part of Bush’s Texas political team.

The Justice Department was clearly bothered by the furor, especially after the disavowal of Republican senators, and announced that it would reappoint the seven interim prosecutors so that senators could hold the usual hearings and confirm the attorneys. But Griffin told Justice not to submit his name. He told the Arkansas Democrat Gazette that his hearing would be a “circus” and that the Democrats would not give him a fair hearing. He would have been asked about his role in voter suppression in Florida in 2004 and other election activities.

So Griffin will remain the U.S. attorney until the Justice Department finds a replacement who satisfies U.S. Rep. John Boozman, R-Ark., and the Senate confirms him. That could be a few months or it could be never. But in his leave-taking, if that is what it turns out to be, Griffin confirmed the worst insinuations about him, that he is first a partisan guerrilla fighter. He denounced Sen. Mark Pryor, a prime target of Republicans in 2008, for partisanship. Pryor has been one of the least partisan of Democratic senators, usually bucking his party to confirm President Bush’s controversial judicial nominees. But Pryor insisted that every nominee has a hearing.

“It’s unfortunate that Sen. Pryor is blaming the administration for using a law that he voted for to appoint me, apparently with the excuse that he didn’t know what he was voting for when he voted,” Griffin said. But the sponsor of the legislation himself, Sen. Arlen Specter, R-Pa., apologized to his fellow senators this month because he said he never knew until recently that without his permission a committee aide had inserted the provision into the legislation at the last minute to give political appointees like Griffin a free pass. — Ernie Dumas