It’s Up to Gon­za­les Now

The Washington Post Sunday - - World News - By Scott Turow

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

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