Needed: a steady hand

Our view: Restoring Department of Justice's integrity would be Eric Holder's first task as attorney general - rebuilding a staff based on merit and not political ideology

November 23, 2008

Now that it has switched to transition mode, the once famously close-mouthed camp of Barack Obama is spouting a gusher of leaks, feelers and trial balloons about possible Cabinet appointments. Sen. Hillary Clinton has been touted as secretary of state, Lawrence Summers to again lead Treasury, and Tom Daschle, the former Senate majority leader, for Health and Human Services. But the agency most in need of rehabilitation may be the beleaguered Department of Justice, whose reputation suffered grievously over the last eight years. Aides to the president-elect say his top choice for the job is Eric Holder, a former federal prosecutor and judge who was the No. 2 man at Justice under President Bill Clinton.

Mr. Holder, an Obama adviser who headed the campaign's vice-presidential selection process, is a friend of Mr. Obama and no stranger to the Justice Department, where he won plaudits for his steady hand as Mr. Clinton's deputy attorney general and earned the respect of the department's career lawyers by putting adherence to the law above politics. But his record was blemished on his final day in office, when he signed off on an ill-considered pardon for fugitive financier Marc Rich, whose former wife had contributed heavily to Mr. Clinton's presidential library. Mr. Holder has since acknowledged that lapse in testimony before Congress.

The issue is likely to be revived during Mr. Holder's Senate confirmation hearings next year, though Obama aides clearly believe he can weather that storm. Just as important will be his views regarding the Patriot Act, the fate of Guantanamo detainees and CIA torture abroad. We expect senators to question the nominee closely on all these matters.

If confirmed, one of the new attorney general's first tasks will be to clean up the mess left by the Bush administration, which during its eight-year tenure trashed the department's tradition of merit-based hiring in favor of ideological appointments based on conservative zeal. Mr. Holder will face the delicate task of rebuilding a nonpartisan civil service without igniting still more partisan rancor.

The task of restoring confidence in the department's integrity, in fact, will require a thorough repudiation of the bitter partisanship President-elect Obama has called the bane of Washington's dysfunctional political culture. Mr. Holder might start by eschewing the wholesale purges of his predecessors and consider retaining at least some of the Republican-appointed U.S. attorneys who have been successful fighting crime and corruption. Maryland U.S. Attorney Rod J. Rosenstein, for example, has had laudable success working with city and state law-enforcement officials to put the most violent criminals behind bars, and there are others like him around the country. We hope senators also will ask Mr. Holder how he would deal with these public officials when they weigh his fitness for office.

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