No justice

March 14, 2007

Consider this disturbing contrast between two Republican administrations in their dealings with federal prosecutors:

In the first instance, a U.S. attorney for Maryland appointed by the Nixon administration, and acting with its blessing, prosecutes the vice president for public corruption, forcing him from office.

In the second, President Bush passes along complaints that his stable of U.S. attorneys hasn't been aggressive in prosecuting Democrats for voter fraud, resulting in a plan to fire all 93 that is pared back to a dismissal of eight.

George Beall, the former U.S. attorney who toppled Vice President Spiro T. Agnew, has said of the experience, "The message was, and still is, no one is above the law."

But the Bush White House plan to can federal prosecutors suggests no federal agency is beyond the reach of the foulest political taint, including the U.S. attorneys, who traditionally see themselves as independent - even of the Justice Department - and are required to apply the law impartially within the context of their states.

The president has done a grave disservice to the federal prosecutors' ability to do their job - at least for the remainder of his term. If any of them decides to pursue a voter fraud case, who's going to take it seriously now?

Mr. Bush may have set a record for politicizing federal departments, putting his spin on even the most basic regulatory functions of the Environmental Protection Agency and the Food and Drug Administration.

Mr. Beall reports, though, that attempts by political leaders at the Justice Department to influence U.S. attorneys are nothing new; he had to fend off pressure from John Mitchell, Richard Nixon's first attorney general, to prosecute pornography cases Mr. Beall didn't believe worth the effort. Yet he wasn't fired. And when evidence mounted that Mr. Agnew was involved in a contractor payoff case, Mr. Mitchell's two successors, Richard Kleindienst and Elliot Richardson, gave Mr. Beall their support.

Such a reaction from current Attorney General Alberto R. Gonzales is unimaginable. Though his aide rejected as impractical the suggestion by White House counsel Harriet E. Miers that the entire cadre of U.S. attorneys be dismissed, Mr. Gonzales continues to defend the political firings of the eight as business as usual.

Mr. Gonzales should, of course, be replaced. But even more important is replacing a policy that repeatedly allows loyalty to trump competence.

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