Monday, March 5, 2007

Those U.S. Attorneys

Everybody's upset about the Bush administration's firing of eight U.S. Attorneys. It looks like -- gasp -- some politics may have been involved in the decision to dump these federal employees, although the Justice Department insists the firings were performance related. The Internet is abuzz with theories about what really happened.

Let's start with the basics. U.S. attorneys -- the federal government's chief lawyer and prosecutor in each of 94 judicial districts around the country -- are political appointees. They serve "at the pleasure of the President." That means the President can fire them at any time, for any reason, or for no reason at all.

Therefore, it's difficult for me to engage my sympathy muscles when I hear the ousted prosecutors complain that their treatment isn't turning solely on their job performance and that some of them may have been brushed aside so that up-and-coming Republican pols could get some padding for their resumes. How do the ousted attorneys think they got their jobs in the first place? It wasn't by being the best lawyers around. I'm sure they're good lawyers, but there are a lot of good lawyers. They got their jobs because of political connections. Democratic U.S. Attorneys who served in the Clinton years got fired so that the Bushies could have their jobs. That's how it works. If you live a political life, you have to be ready to take a fall for the party. If a Karl Rove protege needs a good platform for a shot at political office or a federal judgeship, you may be asked to step aside. That's life in the great big world of politics (and a good reason to be a tenured professor instead). I can't see that anything that happened is illegal.

On the other hand, the President is properly subject to the political displeasure of the voters if he abuses his removal power, even by just using it unwisely. And the administration does seem to have handled this with its usual ham-handed clumsiness. It fired six prosecutors in a single day and went out of its way to claim that the firings were performance-related. Usually, the White House finds some way to do these things discreetly, to say that the fired employees were in fact terrific, and to get them to claim that they're leaving to "spend more time with their families." Heck, find them some cushy private sector job and then everyone's happy. Then we can maintain the fiction that political offices are handed out on the basis of merit.

So when you see claims that U.S. Attorneys are being pushed aside even though they're doing a perfectly good job, to make way for even better-connected, more loyal pols, it's legitimate to be concerned. Political jobs are political, but they also have to get done competently, and an administration famous for giving charge of FEMA to someone whose expertise was in Arabian horses would do well not to heighten the perception that it gives important government posts to party hacks whose only qualification is loyalty and connection.


KipEsquire said...

There are two distinct issues here:

1. Yes, USAs are political appointees. But should they be?

2. Even political appointees are entitled to the defense of detrimental reliance. The office of USA has been overwhelmingly "remove only for cause, not for politics" for the past few decades. It is clearly inequitable, if not forbidden, to suddenly change the rules on them.

Anonymous said...

Chairman Leahy's comments on NPR the other evening express his outrage that politics played a role in the firing of these prosecutors. You make light of the political nature of these appointments.

Are AG's suject to the same sort of Blue Noting procedures that judicial appointees are subject to?

It seems that the legislative branch has overstepped its constitutional boundries by procedurally enacting senatorial courtesy and blue note procedures. Worse still, the secretive nature of these procedures leeds to a even greater lack of accountability.