Under Obama, no purge of U.S. attorneys

March 09, 2009|By Tricia Bishop | Tricia Bishop,tricia.bishop@baltsun.com

When Barack Obama took office in January, the legal community braced itself for a politically motivated, mass firing of the nation's 93 federal prosecutors. But it never came. Instead, the new president asked the 50 or so U.S. Attorneys who hadn't already quit to stay put until successors could be found.

In Maryland, that could take a while.

Politicians on both sides of the political aisle are fans of incumbent U.S. Attorney Rod J. Rosenstein, a George W. Bush appointee, and they're in no hurry to usher him out. It's even possible that they could ask him to stay. He has said he's prepared to keep the job through at least July, when his four-year-term ends. And Barbara A. Mikulski, the state's senior senator charged with recommending judicial replacements, is focused first on filling longer-term vacancies like judgeships, per White House instructions.

Still, the race to get the job has begun. Maryland Attorney General Douglas F. Gansler, who acted as a Justice Department adviser for Obama's transition team, has met with a half-dozen hopefuls who want his advice and political support. And candidates are submitting resumes to Mikulski's five-person committee overseeing the selection.

"It's a great office with a really rich history, and it would be a real privilege to lead it for the next four years," said Venable attorney W. Warren Hamel, who's on a short list of replacement possibilities mentioned in legal circles.

Other names include Stuart O. Simms of the firm Brown, Goldstein & Levy; Jane F. Barrett, director of the Environmental Law Clinic at the University of Maryland, College Park; Zuckerman Spaeder's Gregg L. Bernstein; and Assistant U.S. Attorney Paul M. Tiao. Tiao and Bernstein declined to comment, and Barrett and Simms could not be reached.

The federal prosecutors, who represent 93 districts throughout the country and its territories, are appointed by the president to four-year terms and confirmed by the Senate.

It's tradition for there to be turnover when a new administration moves in. President Bill Clinton canned nearly all sitting U.S. attorneys when he took office; Bush accepted resignations over several months.

Perhaps anticipating something similar, about 30 prosecutors resigned before Obama was inaugurated, and 12 quit after that, leaving about 50 Republican appointees, including Rosenstein, in place. Obama has said they can stay for the time being.

At a legal conference in Washington last week, Attorney General Eric Holder (who recognized Gansler, his "old buddy" and former employee) said he was hoping to fill U.S. attorney positions "as quickly as we can" and expressed surprise at how few names senators had thus far submitted.

"We have made the determination that we are not going to replace wholesale all of the U.S. attorneys in the way that was done, I guess, in the Clinton administration," Holder told an audience of attorneys general. Two or three districts have been told they can keep their federal attorneys, he added, including Chicago's Patrick Fitzgerald, who is prosecuting former Illinois Gov. Rod. R. Blagojevich.

The U.S. attorneys are considered the nation's legal leaders in their respective regions, conducting most of the trial work in which the United States is a party. Rosenstein has made a name for himself prosecuting violent criminals, in particular gang members, drug pushers and murderers.

"We have had an egregious U.S. attorney and we've had some that have been better than others. Right now, we just happen to have a very good one. The reputation of the office once again is high, and the morale is great," Gansler said in an interview. His office works closely with the federal prosecutors, and he called Rosenstein "wonderful" and ultimately "apolitical."

Sens. Mikulski and Benjamin L. Cardin, both Democrats, have publicly praised him, as has Gov. Martin O'Malley. In a statement to The Baltimore Sun, O'Malley said Rosenstein "has shown unprecedented cooperation with state and local law enforcement agencies" and set the path for a successor to follow.

Rosenstein declined to comment, and it is unknown whether he wants to stay in his position. He has worked as a government attorney throughout his nearly 20-year career, including as an assistant to Kenneth W. Starr, who investigated Clinton's relationship with Monica Lewinsky. Rosenstein could be ready for a change.

In a statement to T he Sun, Mikulski said that the White House was looking to first fill "empty or toxic U.S. attorney positions" and long-term vacancies, like those in the 4th Circuit Court of Appeals.

"They are taking steps to rebuild an independent judiciary and to hire U.S. attorneys who are free to do their jobs without political interference," she said, suggesting that the process could be long. Lawyers said she will likely consider diversity in her recommendations: Maryland has had one female U.S. attorney and no African-Americans.

"Every state is a little bit different," said Richard Delonis, president of the National Association of Assistant U.S. Attorneys. In December, he sent a letter to Obama urging him to avoid a mass firing because it is too disruptive.

"This time around so far, things appear to be rather smooth," he said. "I'm happy to report that there's nothing to report."

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