They're political appointees who serve at the pleasure of the president and can be removed at any time. So why the big flap over the recent...

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WASHINGTON — They’re political appointees who serve at the pleasure of the president and can be removed at any time. So why the big flap over the recent firing of eight U.S. attorneys?

Several former U.S. attorneys and legal scholars say the timing of the Bush administration’s replacement of top federal prosecutors is not only atypical, but also a threat to the impartial exercise of justice.

“The sanctity of that position, in terms of that position being immune from any kind of pressure from the administration or Congress, has been the hallmark of the U.S. attorney process. It’s been the hallmark of the federal system of justice,” said W. Charles Grace, a former U.S. attorney for Illinois’ southern district.

“If what is being alleged proves to be accurate, it’s scary — because it removes that buffer.”

Last week, U.S. Attorney General Alberto Gonzales found himself in hot water, days after several of the fired U.S. attorneys testified that they had received politically motivated pressure to speed up ongoing prosecutions of voter-fraud charges against Democrats.

His top aide resigned. Then the White House released e-mail correspondence between it and Justice Department officials regarding the voter-fraud cases. Officials said President Bush and his top adviser, Karl Rove, also passed along complaints.

The apparent goal: Secure verdicts against Democrats and use them as leverage in the months before the midterm elections.

The Senate Judiciary Committee has voted to subpoena five top Justice Department officials to testify in front of the committee and detail what happened. The senators are pondering issuing subpoenas to Rove and Harriet Miers, former White House counsel.

Whatever the outcome, it’s an issue that appears to have some staying power.

The federal government employs 93 U.S. attorneys, who are scattered throughout the states to prosecute and investigate potential violations of federal laws. The president nominates them to a four-year term, with the Senate’s approval.

Typically, almost all of them lose their jobs when a new political party wins control of the White House, according to several former U.S. attorneys.

A new president will likely name a new attorney general, and they’ll want to clean house and have a new team to work with.

But this time, the eight attorneys, including John McKay in Seattle, were fired in the middle of Bush’s second term, a move even more unusual because seven were fired on the same day in December, a month after the midterm elections.

“In the midst of your presidency, to remove eight U.S. attorneys because they didn’t cooperate politically really is a much different thing,” said Sen. Dick Durbin, D-Ill., a member of the judiciary committee. “It calls into question the credibility of the Justice Department.”

Some Republicans contend the administration and the Justice Department have done nothing wrong or illegal.

Legal scholars and former U.S. attorneys said the Bush administration is charting new territory not for the act of firing U.S. attorneys, but for the apparent reasoning, coordination and timing of the decisions.

“This is not something that has any precedent in recent administrations, and it reflects a failure to recognize the kind of institutional damage to the U.S. Attorney’s Office as a legal institution,” said Sam Buell, a law professor at Washington University in St. Louis. He worked 10 years as a U.S. attorney in New York and Massachusetts, during Democratic and Republican presidencies.

“It showed a lack of care and foresight,” Buell said. “It sends a terrible message as to what’s guiding the decisions in this process.”

Legally, though, scholars said the Bush administration did nothing wrong.

A last-minute provision inserted in last year’s renewal of the USA Patriot Act allows the president to appoint interim U.S. attorneys for an unlimited time, thus avoiding the required Senate approval.