Despite the catchy and provocative title we’ve bestowed upon this story, we must confess: We don’t completely “get” the quasi-scandal surrounding the dismissal of eight U.S. Attorneys around the country (which the WSJ Law Blog has officially upgraded from a “flap” to an “imbroglio”).
The fired folks were not career prosecutors. The chief federal prosecutor in a district is a political appointee, who serves at the pleasure of the president. The president’s power over these posts is pretty much plenary (subject to the Senate’s “advise and consent” function, of course).
For better or worse, U.S. Attorney posts have long been treated as “patronage” posts — in both Republican and Democratic administrations. When a new president takes office, he generally cashiers all (or nearly all) of the 94 U.S. Attorneys, even if they’re doing perfectly fine jobs.
An incoming president doesn’t have to give any reason for dismissing a federal prosecutor. If he did, the reason might be something like: “‘Cause I want to give the job to my fundraising buddy and/or political ally.”
Consider the example of our former boss, Christopher J. Christie, the U.S. Attorney for New Jersey. Christie has been widely praised as a dynamic and effective U.S. attorney — praise that is raising speculation about what he might do next. But at the time he assumed the post, he had practically no criminal law experience. Critics claimed that Chris Christie’s main “qualification” for the job was his (and his family’s) skill at raising funds for Bush.
True? Maybe; maybe not. But that’s why they call it politics, people.
Continued ramblings, plus lots of links, after the jump.
The dismissed U.S. attorneys were no exception to the rule that plums get doled out to pals. As the Chicago Tribune notes:
The claim that politics was the motive to get rid of all these U.S. attorneys also is a bit puzzling. In the first place, they were all political appointees of President Bush. In the second, some of them were not exactly political virgins when they arrived. [David] Iglesias [of New Mexico] ran for attorney general of New Mexico in 1998 on the Republican ticket. [Bud] Cummins [of Arkansas] lost a 1996 congressional race, also running as a Republican, and was an elector for Bush in 2000. If politics was a non-factor in the selection of U.S. attorneys, these two would never have gotten the job to begin with.
In other words: Live by political patronage, die by political patronage.
Heck, let’s push the envelope on this. If a president wanted to can a U.S. attorney to fill the post with his mistress — or, say, a raven-haired White House intern, of world-historical beauty — that would be just dandy by us (provided she’s a lawyer, since we suppose that the United States attorney should be an attorney).
To be sure, it’s highly unusual for a president to dismiss U.S. Attorneys in the middle of his term. But hey, that’s why they call him the president. What good is being “The Decider” if you don’t get to decide?
So we’re not losing sleep over this issue. But maybe you can help us out and dispel our confusion. Please feel free to explain, in the comments, why this is so outrageous. For those of you who are new to the story, we’ve collected several links below (as well as a link to the interesting Philadelphia Inquirer profile of Christopher Christie).
P.S. What we will say is this: the White House and the Department of Justice
completely botched may have mishandled these firings, from a public-relations perspective. They kinda-sorta claimed that some were performance-related, which pissed off the departing U.S. attorneys (and justifiably so).
The White House and the DOJ should instead have just acknowledged that they were exercising political prerogatives to replace the people that they put into those posts in the first place. They could have just mumbled something vague about bringing in “new blood” or “fresh perspectives.” And they should have spaced out the firings over several months, instead of handing them down all at the same time (December 7) — to avoid that “massacre”-like feel.
A New Mystery to Prosecutors: Their Lost Jobs [New York Times]
Senator Sought Dismissal of New Mexico Prosecutor [New York Times]
Judging prosecutors [Chicago Tribune via How Appealing]
Domenici Says He Contacted Prosecutor [Washington Post]
Senator apologizes for calling U.S. attorney about federal probe [McClatchy]
Political interference alleged in sacking of a U.S. attorney [McClatchy]
U.S. Attorney Imbroglio: The Story That Keeps on Giving [WSJ Law Blog]
Christie Keeping Career Sizzling [Philadelphia Inqurier]