It’s Up to Gonzales Now
Is political loyalty more important to the Bush Justice Department than prosecutorial independence?
To those of us who have been federal prosecutors, that’s the critical question facing Attorney General Alberto R. Gonzales as he testifies before Congress this week on the firing of eight U.S. attorneys. We know what’s at stake: a balance of power between the Justice Department and those who handle day-to-day prosecutions that is the bedrock of federal law enforcement.
This balance of power was evident to me even when I worked as a law clerk in the U.S. attorney’s office in Chicago in the summer of 1977, between my second and third years of law school. I can still recall my first research assignment.
Following the example of his two predecessors, then-U.S. Attorney Samuel K. Skinner had made pioneering use of the federal mailfraud statute to break through the endemic corruption of Chicago’s Democratic machine. But with Jimmy Carter’s election the prior fall, Skinner — an appointee of President Gerald R. Ford — was planning to hand in his resignation. This had raised fears in the office that the local Democratic pols would use their pull in Washington to manipulate the appointment process and install a successor who would turn a blind eye to all the fixing and fraud going on. Some of the lawyers wanted me to find out if there was any legal basis for Skinner to hold on to his job.
I had the answer by the end of the day: No. The U.S. attorney, like most other members of the executive branch, serves at the pleasure of the president. Assuming that Carter wanted to make a change — and the U.S. attorneys always left office when the White House fell into the hands of the opposing party — Skinner would return to the private sector.
As it happened, things worked out well for everyone. Skinner eventually went on to