Cleaning house at Justice

Our view: Attorney general must restore department's tattered reputation

April 12, 2009

Attorney General Eric Holder will have his hands full cleaning up the mess at the Department of Justice. The department drew a steady stream of criticism during the Bush years for unprofessional conduct by government lawyers and political meddling in appointments and high-profile cases. Mr. Holder's selection last week of two career prosecutors to lead the effort to restore the department's reputation signals he is serious about turning his agency around.

In naming Mary Patrice Brown as head of the Office of Professional Responsibility, which monitors misconduct by government lawyers, and H. Marshall Jarrett to run the executive office of U.S. attorneys, which directs and coordinates the work of the 94 U.S. attorneys around the country, Mr. Holder stressed they were chosen for their competence rather than for their political connections. Ms. Brown currently leads the criminal division at the U.S. attorney's office in Washington. Mr. Jarrett, a longtime Justice Department prosecutor, heads the OPR. Both have a reputation for integrity and willingness to play by the rules.

That will be particularly important for Ms. Brown, who is stepping into her new job just as the government's public corruption case against former Alaska Sen. Ted Stevens collapsed this month. The judge in that case was so outraged by allegations of prosecutorial misconduct that he threw out Mr. Stevens' conviction and appointed a special prosecutor to investigate the government's attorneys.

For similar reasons, Mr. Jarrett also will have a full plate. The firing of nine U.S. attorneys in 2006, allegedly for refusing to go after White House opponents on a political hit list, triggered a massive public outcry that eventually led to the resignations of former Attorney General Alberto Gonzales and 11 other Justice Department officials. Mr. Holder and his team will have to fix this mess without reigniting partisan rancor. How well they fare will in large measure determine Mr. Holder's effectiveness.

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