In March, the Washington Post reported that several highly political Bush-appointed U.S. Attorneys were seeking to stay in their posts, prompting fears on the Left that President Obama would leave a cadre of conservative prosecutors in place across the country. There’s been chatter that some prosecutors are trying to exploit the U.S. Attorneys firing scandal by arguing that if they were replaced now, the Obama administration would be politicizing the Justice Department in the same manner as the Bush White House did.
This argument, of course, is ludicrous: U.S. Attorneys are political appointees who serve at the pleasure of the president. It’s true that these powerful law enforcement officials are supposed to administer justice without regard to partisan politics – an issue that was at heart of the U.S. Attorneys firing uproar as it became clear that prosecutors such as David Iglesias in New Mexico were being ousted for refusing to pursue cases against Democrats.
But U.S. Attorney jobs are plum political posts. When the White House changes party control, the victor gets to put his own people into these jobs. End of discussion.
So, what’s the state of play on U.S. Attorneys now that the Obama administration has passed the 100-day mark? To answer that, we tried to assemble some hard numbers. To wit: How many Clinton-appointed U.S. Attorneys were still on the job at the end of April 2001? And how many Bush-appointed U.S. Attorneys are still in place now?
The answer: Around 53 Bush-appointees are still coming to work at the 93 U.S. Attorney offices around the country, by our count. But at this point eight years ago, only 32 Clinton-appointed prosecutors were still on the job, the DOJ says. That’s a difference of 21.
The above tally on Bush-appointed U.S. Attorneys is our own, and it differs somewhat from the numbers reported on the Department of Justice’s Web site. The DOJ puts asterisks next to “presidentially appointed” U.S. Attorneys. What the DOJ really appears to mean is “Senate confirmed” U.S. Attorneys. Unlike the DOJ list, we’ve included in our tally some prosecutors who were appointed during the Bush administration but never confirmed by the Senate, amid turbulence over the politicization of the Bush DOJ. Prosecutors in that category include Jeffrey A. Taylor in the District of Columbia, who withdrew his nomination under opposition from Democrat Eleanor Holmes Norton, DC’s non-voting delegate to the House. But Taylor has remained on the job under a U.S. District Court appointment.
We’ve also made some judgment calls, based on whether the appointees were clearly political or were simply career prosecutors filling vacancies. For example, we’re not counting Jane Duke in the Eastern District of Arkansas as a Bush holdover; she was the first deputy in the office and promoted in 2007 after interim U.S. Attorney Tim Griffin left in the wake of the U.S. Attorney firing controversy. Griffin, a former aide to Karl Rove, had been installed after the White House fired U.S. Attorney Bud Cummins. We also excluded U.S. Attorney Erik Peterson in Wisconsin from the tally of Bush holdovers, because he’s announced his resignation effective in June.
Given the law firm recession, there’s a plausible explanation for the Bush appointees to be sticking around. Some of them are probably having a hard time finding new jobs. And its normal to have holdovers in place as a new administration gears up; The Bush administration put out a news release in March 2001 saying it hoped to have Clinton-era U.S. Attorneys transitioned out by June 2001. When President Clinton took office for his first term in 1993, he demanded that all George H.W. Bush U.S. Attorneys hand in their resignations. But blanket resignations don’t appear to be the norm. For a complete list of U.S. Attorney vacancies and potential nominations, click here to view our interactive chart.
Nonetheless, some of the Bush-era U.S. Attorneys who haven’t resigned yet are among the most controversial politically. They include Mary Beth Buchanan in the Western District of Pennsylvania, Matt Dummermuth in the Northern District of Iowa, Leura Canary in the Middle District of Alabama, and Bill Mercer in Montana.
We asked the Obama administration to explain how it is going about the selection process for new U.S. Attorneys. Justice Department spokeswoman Tracy Schmaler issued this statement:
“Over the past several months, the Department has been in close touch with U.S. Attorneys regarding the transition process. U.S. Attorneys have been informed that the administration intends to move forward on submitting new nominations in most districts, as is customary following a transition from one administration to another.
“We have not asked any U.S. Attorney to resign. Some U.S. Attorneys have left on their own accord and may continue to do that. Meanwhile, the Department has begun vetting some nominees, and in those particular districts, the U.S. Attorneys have been given ample notice that this process is underway.”
If readers have any insights or corrections to share, please email us at firstname.lastname@example.org, and we’ll look into it.