Over the past several days disturbing reports have surfaced regarding the forced resignations of at least seven United States Attorneys from various parts of the country, some of whom have been investigating politically sensitive public corruption cases. At least some of these officials have been replaced, without Senate approval, by political functionaries with little trial experience.
One of the most troubling cases involves H.E. Cummins III, the highly respected U.S. Attorney in Little Rock, who was asked to step aside so that the White House could replace him with an interim U.S. Attorney by the name of J. Timothy Griffin. Mr. Griffin’s chief qualification for the job appears to be his work doing opposition research for Karl Rove and the Republican National Committee.
U.S. Attorneys serve at the pleasure of the president. So what’s wrong with his hiring and firing them as he sees fit? The answer is that federal prosecutors are not ordinary political appointees. They wield extraordinary power—the power to protect our families and communities from harm, and the power to destroy innocent lives and reputations, eroding the rule of law and shaking public confidence in our system of justice. That’s why it’s essential that they be seasoned professionals and not political hacks. And that’s why they are subject to Senate confirmation.
The administration has managed to bypass the confirmation process by taking advantage of an obscure provision slipped into last year’s PATRIOT Act amendments. Until then, the U.S. Attorney General was permitted to appoint an interim U.S. Attorney for a maximum of 120 days, after which time the vacancy would be filled by the federal district court until a successor could be confirmed. The new provision removes the 120-day expiration date, allowing the Attorney General to appoint interim U.S. Attorneys on an essentially permanent basis, without Senate confirmation.
Sens. Patrick Leahy (D-VT), Dianne Feinstein (D-CA), and Mark Pryor (D-AR) have introduced legislation to reinstate the former rule and discourage this abuse. Their bill deserves to be enacted. They also will undoubtedly wish to question the Attorney General about the recent dismissals and appointments when he appears before the Judiciary Committee this week.
Mark Agrast is a Senior Fellow at the Center for American Progress