Politicizing justice

February 18, 2007

Deputy Attorney General Paul J. McNulty just couldn't tell a lie. So when pressed during Senate hearings on the unceremonious firing of seven U.S. attorneys, Mr. McNulty had to concede that politics did play a role in dumping the chief federal prosecutor in Little Rock, Ark. The replacement, J. Timothy Griffin, was an FOK - friend of Karl. That's Karl Rove, the president's top political adviser and key Republican strategist.

You can't get any more political than that.

With Arkansas Sen. Mark Pryor raising serious questions about the appointment, Mr. Griffin wisely withdrew his name for permanent consideration.

Mr. McNulty and his boss at the Justice Department, Attorney General Alberto R. Gonzales, should stop conning the American people. Their explanation for the firings - that they were "performance-related" - is pure poppycock. Congress should move swiftly to repeal an aspect of the Patriot Act that gives the attorney general the power to appoint interim U.S. attorneys for an indefinite period of time, which could result in someone serving in this powerful post without congressional consent. Mr. Gonzales doesn't deserve this power.

His recent firings show what matters to Mr. Gonzales, and it isn't performance:

Consider the dismissal of the U.S. attorney in San Diego, Carol S. Lam. She successfully prosecuted former Rep. Randy "Duke" Cunningham, a Republican, for influence peddling.

Then there's John McKay, U.S. attorney in Seattle. He had received a glowing report from Justice Department auditors last year, and a follow-up letter from a Justice official congratulating him on the good work. That same official called him in December, and without explanation told him his time in office was over. The chief judge of the federal court there took the unusual step of speaking out in defense of Mr. McKay, calling him "absolutely superb."

And there was the U.S. attorney in Nevada, Daniel G. Bogden, who, in comments to the Las Vegas Review-Journal, said he was given no indication his performance was a problem.

U.S. attorneys have enormous power. By politicizing the appointments, the Bush administration has diminished their ability to fairly and judiciously carry out their responsibility.

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