Senate Moves to Retract Bush’s Authority Over Federal Prosecutors

Michael Hayes
WASHINGTON — An obscure portion of the Patriot Act that allows the attorney general to appoint U.S. attorneys without Senate confirmation has come under fire recently, with the Senate passing legislation that would restore the independence of federal prosecutors.

On Monday, the Senate Judiciary Committee gave its unanimous approval to S.B. 214. Today, the Senate passed the bill by a vote of 94-2.

“If you politicize the prosecutors, you politicize everybody in the whole chain of law enforcement,” said Judiciary Committee Chairman Patrick Leahy, D-Vt.

The bill next goes to the House, where it will likely be reconciled with H.R. 580.

Sen. Diane Feinstein, D-Calif., proposed S.B. 214 in the wake of a recent scandal involving an attempt by the Bush Administration to purge all 93 U.S. attorneys midterm.

Traditionally, the top U.S. assistant attorney in each local office temporarily filled any vacancy, while home-state senators searched for candidates to present to the White House. In cases where the replacement process lasted more than four months, federal judges had the power to extend a temporary appointment or name a permanent successor, with Senate approval.

According to language inserted in the Patriot Act by Sen. Arlen Specter, R-Pa., the attorney general, on behalf of the president now has the power to appoint interim U.S. attorneys for the duration of the president’s term without approval from the Senate.

S.B. 214 is designed to amend the Patriot Act by returning the U.S. attorney approval process back to its previous incarnation. Under the proposed law, the administration would have 120 days to gain Senate approval for an interim appointment. If a U.S. attorney were not approved within 120 days, a federal district judge would have the power to appoint a replacement.

The appointment and removal of U.S. attorneys has made major news in Washington lately because of revelations that up to eight federal prosecutors may have been dismissed in an attempt by the Bush Administration to reshape the Justice Department. While U.S. attorneys serve at the pleasure of the President, the idea that the administration would purge the ranks of federal prosecutors midterm has many in Congress up in arms.

“We will get to the bottom of this crisis in our Justice Department with or without cooperation,” Rep. John Conyers Jr., D-Mich., said. “The U.S. attorneys are entrusted with tremendous power in our criminal justice system. Using the U.S. attorneys as political pawns undermines their critical work in fighting terrorism and risks subjecting the power of the prosecutor to partisan whims.”

At least one of the fired U.S. attorneys, Paul Charlton, may have been fired because of a porn connection. Some have speculated that Charlton may have balked at bringing an obscenity case against JM Productions and Five Star video when revelations surfaced that the U.S. government, through the U.S. Trustee’s Office of the Justice Department, had supervised the sale of the allegedly obscene titles while administering the bankruptcy of Arizona-based Castle Megastore.

While no lawmaker has been able to confirm why Charlton or his colleagues were fired, Conyers’ ongoing investigation has caused a political firestorm for the administration.

Bush has reaffirmed his support of Attorney General Alberto Gonzales, who has become a lightning rod for the controversy.

“Nobody is prophetic enough to know what the next 21 months hold,” White House press secretary Tony Snow said when asked if Gonzales would remain until the end of Bush's term.

Gonzales publicly apologized last week for the way his department handled the dismissals. He also apologized privately to the U.S. attorneys in a weekend conference call.

House Speaker Rep. Nancy Pelosi, D-Calif., has called for Bush to replace Gonzales.