Politics and Justice

Partisan apologists for the Bush administration—joined by cynics of all political persuasions—shrug off recent disclosures about the firing of eight U.S. Attorneys. Just politics as usual, they yawn. Those discharged served “at the pleasure of the President,” and can be fired for no reason at all, so what’s the big deal?


Bud Cummins, one of the eight fired Prosecutors, recently answered that question. In an article in Salon, he acknowledged, “The president had an absolute right to fire us. We served at his pleasure.” But Cummins went on to explain the damage that is done when dismissal is based upon the prosecutor’s unwillingness to break the rules to “help” favored politicians.


“Put simply, the Department of Justice lives on credibility. When a federal prosecutor sends FBI agents to your brother’s house with an arrest warrant, demonstrating an intention to take away years of his liberty, separate him from his family, and take away his property, you and the public at large must have absolute confidence that the sole reason for those actions is that there was substantial evidence to suggest that your brother intentionally committed a federal crime. Everyone must have confidence that the prosecutor exercised his or her vast discretion in a neutral and nonpartisan pursuit of the facts and the law.”


We might draw an analogy to judicial selection. Everyone understands that the party in power can appoint federal judges whose judicial philosophy it favors. Would we then shrug our shoulders and say “politics as usual” if judicial appointments went to people who had promised in advance to rule on cases the way the administration wanted? Of course not. Choosing someone with a compatible judicial philosophy is one thing;  choosing someone who is corrupt is another.


Joseph D. Rich served in the Justice Department for 35 years, and was chief of the voting rights section from 1999 to 2005. As he recently wrote in the LA Times, he worked under Attorneys General with very different political philosophies, from “John Mitchell to Ed Meese to Janet Reno. Regardless of the administration, the political appointees had respect for the experience and judgment of longtime civil servants.” Not so the Bush Administration, which hired and fired solely on the basis of political loyalty.


“I personally was ordered to change performance evaluations of several attorneys under my supervision. I was told to include critical comments about those whose recommendations ran counter to the political will of the administration and to improve evaluations of those who were politically favored.”


The evidence we’ve seen so far suggests that prosecutors were dismissed because they refused to play politics—to bring bogus charges against Democrats, or stop investigating high-ranking Republicans. That’s bad enough—but what does that suggest about the U.S. Attorneys who were not fired? Their reputations have also been sullied, in most cases unfairly, because it is impossible not to wonder whether they kept their positions by “playing ball.”


When the White House trades justice for power, who can you trust?