Why Prosecutors Shouldn't Act Like Partisans

By Dan Froomkin
Special to washingtonpost.com
Tuesday, March 13, 2007; 4:34 PM

Big news today in The Washington Post and the New York Times: It turns out that the controversial purge of eight U.S. attorneys had its genesis inside the White House and may have been precipitated by President Bush's expression of concern in October that some prosecutors had not been sufficiently aggressive in pursuing cases that could have helped Republican candidates in the upcoming election.

No one would deny that one of the duties of the president of the United States is to place people of his choosing in key positions throughout the executive branch, including in key law-enforcement positions.

But this White House appears to have lost sight of a distinction that is critical to the maintenance of good government: That just because someone is a political appointee doesn't mean they're supposed to do their jobs primarily as partisans -- or that they should be fired if they fail to do so to the satisfaction of political operatives in the White House.

That is particularly the case with law enforcement. Filling non-law enforcement jobs with political appointees who are incompetent or blindly partisan may well take a toll on the government's ability to do function properly. (See, for instance, David E. Lewis in NiemanWatchdog.org.)

But in law-enforcement jobs -- such as the attorney general, the director of the FBI, and the country's 93 U.S. attorneys -- overtly partisan behavior is a more troubling problem. While the men and women in those positions serve at the pleasure of the president, it is also a critically important part of their job to remain independent.

That's because it's flatly un-American for the law to be used as a political weapon. It erodes public confidence in the justice system, and offends the American commitment to fairness. It's the sort of thing that, quite properly, can lead to impeachment.

According to a White House spokeswoman, Bush in October passed along to Attorney General Alberto R. Gonzales complaints he had heard that some U.S. attorneys had not adequately pursued voter-fraud allegations.

What's significant about that is that charges of alleged Democratic voter fraud have long been a notorious GOP stalking horse. And some Republicans, at the time, were desperately casting about for some sort of Democratic controversy to distract voters from the GOP corruption scandals that had engulfed Washington -- and that quite possibly ended up costing them both houses of Congress.

One more observation: We can now trace the genesis of the purge back two years to then-White House counsel Harriet Miers's proposal to do a generic housecleaning of all U.S. attorneys. That might have provided nifty cover for ridding the White House of the pesky special counsel Patrick J. Fitzgerald, but her proposal was pretty obviously a nonstarter because it would have been an epic task.

It does date White House thinking about the concept of firing U.S. attorneys back a long ways, but I'm more interested in the purge list that eventually emerged, in the White House's involvement in developing that list, in Karl Rove's role, and in Bush's apparently endorsement of the idea of punishing attorneys who weren't helping the campaign.

The Stories

Dan Eggen and John Solomon writes in The Washington Post: "The White House suggested two years ago that the Justice Department fire all 93 U.S. attorneys, a proposal that eventually resulted in the dismissals of eight prosecutors last year, according to e-mails and internal documents that the administration will provide to Congress today. . . .

"The dismissals took place after President Bush told Attorney General Alberto R. Gonzales in October that he had received complaints that some prosecutors had not energetically pursued voter-fraud investigations, according to a White House spokeswoman. . . .

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