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Worth a second look

Congress and the Justice Department are right to examine whether firings of U.S. attorneys pass the smell test.

March 06, 2007

WHEN LAST we left the question of whether the Bush administration had improperly removed a handful of U.S. attorneys, there was a lot of smoke and no fire. A month later, some of the smoke -- such as the theory that Carol Lam was removed in San Diego to thwart the prosecution of a politically connected defense contractor -- has dissipated. But other firings have created sparks of concern that Congress is right to investigate.

A House Judiciary subcommittee has subpoenaed some of the dismissed prosecutors, including Lam, to testify today about their removals. The Senate Judiciary Committee is close behind. We hope that the hearings generate light and not just partisan heat.

Today's star witness is likely to be David Iglesias of New Mexico, who has complained that, before being fired, he was approached by two Republican politicians who wanted him to expedite an investigation that could have embarrassed state Democrats before last November's election. Over the weekend, Sen. Pete V. Domenici (R-N.M.) acknowledged that he had called Iglesias to ask about the "time frame" of that investigation. On Monday, the Justice Department said Domenici called U.S. Atty. Gen. Alberto R. Gonzales or his deputy on four occasions to complain about the prosecutor.

Last month, Deputy Atty. Gen. Paul J. McNulty assured the Senate Judiciary Committee that none of the removals were designed to thwart ongoing investigations or to punish prosecutors for investigating public corruption. At the same hearing, McNulty said that the firings were "performance related." Yet some of the dismissed prosecutors had received positive evaluations. This seeming contradiction needs to be cleared up, not just by Congress but by the Justice Department's inspector general.

That said, we continue to oppose a proposal by Sen. Dianne Feinstein (D-Calif.) that would return to federal judges the power to appoint interim U.S. attorneys. The bill is grounded in a suspicion that the Bush Justice Department wants to install cronies in U.S. attorneys' jobs indefinitely and without Senate confirmation -- a claim the administration denies and must now refute with prompt presidential nominations subject to Senate confirmation.

Even after being approved by the Senate, a U.S. attorney -- like a member of the Cabinet -- is an officer of the executive branch who under our system of government can be removed by the president at a moment's notice. Congress has no business asking whether such dismissals are wise, but it has every right to determine whether they are intended to thwart or politicize the administration of justice. That question should be the focus of today's hearings.

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