Arizona U.S. Attorney Dennis Burke is being mentioned as a possible successor to Sen. Jon Kyl (R-Ariz.), who announced on Thursday that he will not seek reelection in 2012.
Burke has headed the office since September 2009. He’s been in the news recently for his office’s role in prosecuting Jared Lee Loughner, the man charged with the Tucson shooting rampage last month that resulted in six deaths and the serious wounding of Rep. Gabrille Giffords (D-Ariz.), who was shot in the head. Giffords was planning a possible run for the Senate seat before she was wounded, the Washington Post reported.
Burke is experienced in the political arena. Before becoming the state’s top federal prosecutor, Burke spent years working for Janet Napolitano, first as chief deputy and a special assistant attorney general during her tenure as state attorney general, then as her chief of staff when she was Arizona governor and finally as a senior adviser on border security when she became secretary of the Department of Homeland Security.
In the 1990s Burke worked on Capitol Hill and in the Bill Clinton White House, and served brief stints at Main Justice as a special counsel and later acting head of the Office of Legislative Affairs. During that time period he also served as an Assistant U.S. Attorney in Arizona.
Although Burke has never held a formal role in a political campaign, he has “volunteered in different capacities for numerous candidates at all levels and assisted in other party activities involving elections,” according to the Senate Judiciary Committee questionnaire he submitted in connection with his U.S. Attorney nomination.
Kyl’s said at a news conference in Phoenix Thursday that he had considered retiring in 2006 but opted to seek reelection, as it was a “difficult year for Republicans” and “circumstances evolved,” prompting him to change his mind. But the 68-year-old senator said he did not want to seek a fourth term.
Kyl’s departure will free up a spot on the Senate Judiciary Committee, where he is a senior member. He was also the Senate Minority Whip, the No. 2 position in the Senate GOP leadership. Texas Sen. John Cornyn, another Republican member of the Senate Judiciary Committee, has said he will run for the leadership post.
Kyl is known for his conservative policies. He recently challenged President Barack Obama on the strategic arms reduction treaty, a U.S.-Russia nuclear treaty that was a foreign policy priority for the administration. He has also opposed Obama nominations from his post on the Judiciary Committee, including Associate Supreme Court Justice Elena Kagan.
The House of Representatives on Tuesday rejected a measure to extend through December three expiring provisions of the Patriot Act, the national security legislation passed in the wake of the Sept. 11, 2001 attacks.
A coalition of liberal Democrats and conservative Republicans – both concerned about civil liberties – came together to defeat the proposed extension on a 277-to-148 vote. Twenty-six Republicans voted with 122 Democrats against the measure, while 67 Democrats and 210 Republicans supported it. Ten members did not vote.
Without congressional action, the three controversial provisions will expire on Feb. 28. The provisions are “roving wiretaps” that follow a terrorism suspect’s changing use of phone and Internet records, a “lone wolf” provision allowing law enforcement to track a target that doesn’t have an affiliation with a specific group, and so-called Section 215 orders allowing investigators to freely gather a suspect’s business records.
The White House backs a measure by Senate Judiciary Chairman Patrick Leahy (D-Vt.) for an extension that would last until December 2013.
The ranking member of the House Judiciary Committee, Rep. John Conyers (D-Mich.), opposed the House extension and urged his colleagues to vote no. In an official statement, he called the Patriot Act “one of the worst laws” passed in Congress and said the bill’s provisions “would authorize extraordinarily intrusive acts by the executive branch.”
Republican Sens. Mitch McConnell of Kentucky, the minority leader; Charles Grassley of Iowa, the ranking member of the Senate Judiciary Committee, and Saxby Chambliss of Georgia, the top GOP member on the Senate Intelligence Committee, called for a permanent extension of the provisions instead.
But Tea Party leader Sen. Rand Paul, the newly elected Kentucky Republican, said he’s “had a lot of reservations” about the law and hasn’t decided whether he’ll vote to extend it when the Senate acts on the measure, likely later this month. Paul’s father, libertarian leader Rep. Ron Paul (R-Texas), opposed the Patriot Act when it was first approved in October 2001 and voted against the extension on Tuesday.
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The Senate Judiciary Committee endorsed patent-reform legislation without opposition on Thursday, sending the measure to the full Senate for possible action on the first significant changes in the patent system in 60 years.
The Patent Reform Act addresses funding for the Patent and Trademark Office, aimed at improving patent quality and provides more certainty in damages.
The patent system would also transition to a first-inventor-to-file system, meaning the inventor who files an application first would get the patent. Under the current system, the first to invent would get the patent.
“A balanced and efficient intellectual property system that rewards invention and promotes innovation through high quality patents is crucial to our nation’s economic prosperity and job growth,” said Committee Chairman Patrick Leahy (D-Vt.) in a prepared statement. Two senior Republicans on the panel, Orrin Hatch of Utah and Charles E. Grassley of Iowa, were listed as co-authors with Leahy.
The Patent Reform Act of 2011 will resemble legislation the panel worked on in the last Congress — which was based on a patent reform bill introduced by House Judiciary Committee Chairman Lamar Smith (R-Texas) and Rep. Howard Berman (D-Calif.) in 2006. As Main Justice reported earlier, passage of the legislation is far from certain, since there is opposition in some quarters.
The House Judiciary Committee has not yet begun work on a companion bill.
The committee also discussed, but did not vote on, a business-methods and a fee-diversion amendment.
Last June, the U.S. Supreme Court rejected a business-method patent under the precedent that abstract ideas are not considered patentable. In response, Sens. Charles Schumer (D-N.Y.) and Jon Kyl (R-Ariz.) presented a business-methods amendment.
This would introduce a new program that would, “apply not to novel products or services, but to abstract and often common concepts of how to do business,” said Schumer.
A well-known example of a business method patent is one-click purchasing option at the online retailer, Amazon.com.
Leahy said he is not in favor of dubious patents on business practices, but he worries that the amendment is too broad.
Kyl said it was a major disappointment that a conclusion was not reached during the committee hearing.
Sen. Tom Coburn (R-Okla.) proposed the fee-diversion amendment, saying fees ought to be utilized for a relevant purpose, not to help other federal government finances. He suggested increased oversight by the committee, but Sen. Dianne Feinstein (D-Calif.) said that responsibility should remain within the Senate Appropriations committee.
Sen. John Cornyn (R-Texas) echoed Coburn’s argument calling fee diversions “a pathology of the way we do business” in government.
While the vote was 15-0, Cornyn and Coburn abstained from voting.
Sen. Charles Grassley (R-Iowa) wrote letters to the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives criticizing the agency’s implementation of Project Gunrunner.
Project Gunrunner is an ongoing effort to stem the flow of weapons into Mexico. Last December, U.S. Border Patrol Agent Brian Terry was murdered in a gunfight with weapons allegedly purchased from a Phoenix area gun store linked with the border initiative, The Arizona Republic reported Tuesday.
In his letters addressed to ATF’s Acting Director Kenneth Melson, the Senate Judiciary ranking member blamed the agency for Terry’s death, calling their actions “careless, if not negligent.” Grassley also referenced the Justice Department Office of the Inspector General’s report of the program, who deemed it “unsuccessful” mainly because ATF focused more on gun dealers and straw purchaser investigations, rather than on higher level traffickers and smugglers.
Grassley also warned Melson and his agency on whistleblowers. ATF Assistant Special Agent in Charge George Gillette allegedly accused one of his agents with misconduct for providing details on the Project Gunrunner to the Senate Judiciary Committee, prompting Grassley to say ATF reacted wrongly. He spoke highly of the need for whistleblowers, calling them “some of the most patriotic people I know.”
Proposed budget cuts for ATF could mean the end for Project Gunrunner. Former senior ATF official James Cavanaugh told The Washington Post, “ATF is the ugly stepchild of every administration.” The agency has been under intense scrutiny by conservatives in Congress and gun-rights advocates, like the National Rifle Association, because of its role in enforcing gun laws.
Grassley requested a briefing for his staff by ATF supervisors on the Mexico border initiative by Feb. 3.
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Senate Judiciary Committee Chairman Patrick Leahy (D-Vt.) introduced legislation on Wednesday to extend expiring provisions of the Patriot Act.
The Patriot Act Sunset Extension Act of 2011 would uphold law enforcement and intelligence techniques that would otherwise expire on Feb. 28, and extend them to December 2013.
“It will also promote transparency and expand privacy and civil liberties safeguards in current law,” Leahy said in a prepared statement. “It increases judicial oversight of government surveillance powers that capture information on Americans. This is a package of reforms that all Americans should support.”
The extension also includes provisions to improve oversight of intelligence-gathering tools and allow a phasing out of national security letters, or administrative subpoenas that the FBI uses to obtain evidence without a court order.
Leahy said he expects the Judiciary Committee to take up the legislation soon.
Enacted in the fall of 2001, only weeks after the Sept. 11 attacks, the Patriot Act made it easier for law enforcement agencies to obtain telephone and email records and other data in the pursuit of suspected terrorists. The act has been at the center of the debate over the proper balance between national security and individual privacy, a debate that has been part of American politics since the Founding Fathers.
Leahy also led the efforts for an extension in February 2010 for past expiring provisions:
- Lone wolf: Allows the government to track a target without any discernible affiliation to a foreign power, such as an international terrorist group.
- Business records: Allows investigators to compel third parties, including financial services and travel and telephone companies, to provide them access to a suspect’s records without the suspect’s knowledge.
- Roving wiretaps: Allows the government to monitor phone lines or Internet accounts that a terrorism suspect may be using, whether or not others who are not suspects also regularly use them.
Leahy came to agreement with Attorney General Eric Holder and the Department of Justice Inspector General, Glenn Fine, to implement safeguards and civil liberties provisions also included in the 2009 bill.
The updated bill outlines two new requirements, one that the DOJ must issue public reports, and a section of the bill that was rewritten to reflect that DOJ minimized procedures for national security letters in October 2010.
Sen. Richard Blumenthal (D-Conn.) will join the Senate Judiciary Committee, the Blog of Legal Times reported Thursday.
The former Connecticut U.S. Attorney and state Attorney General, Blumenthal defeated his Republican opponent, Linda McMahon, after incumbent Sen. Chris Dodd, also a Democrat, decided not to seek re-election in 2010.
He takes his seat as Sen. Ben Cardin (D-Md.) leaves the committee. Sen. Mike Lee (R-Utah) was also chosen for the committee, which now has 10 Democrats to eight Republicans.
“I am pleased to welcome Senator Blumenthal and Senator Lee as the newest members of the Senate Judiciary Committee and look forward to working with them,” Leahy said in a prepared statement. “There is much work to be done in Congress. Working together, we will accomplish much for the American people.”
This story has been updated to include Leahy’s remarks.
The Chairman of the Senate Judiciary Committee, Patrick Leahy, ushered in the 112th Congress with high hopes outlining his committee’s agenda on Tuesday.
The Vermont Democrat spoke specifically on fighting fraud, promoting innovation and protecting national security and constitutional rights in the digital age.
Guests gathered at the Freedom Forum within the Newseum to hear Leahy emphasize the need for bipartisanship and the elimination of divisive rhetoric, especially after Saturday’s shootings involving Rep. Gabrielle Giffords (D-Ariz.), who was gravely wounded, and Federal Judge John Roll, who was killed.
With the Republicans in control of the House, Leahy said he is committed to working with the new chairman of the House Judiciary Committee, Lamar Smith of Texas, and the new ranking Republican on the Senate Judiciary Committee, Charles Grassley of Iowa.
Leahy recalled his work with Grassley in the previous Congress, citing The Leahy-Grassley Fraud Enforcement and Recovery Act, the False Claims Act, the Affordable Care Act, and the Wall Street Reform Act, and he said he wants to build on that progress.
“The Obama administration is a real partner in our fraud-fighting efforts, and we want to make sure the newly enacted provisions are having the intended effect, as well as ensuring that adequate resources are devoted to our anti-fraud enforcement efforts,” Leahy said.
He said he intends to spotlight tax fraud in the first Senate Judiciary Committee hearing, on Jan. 26, and that panel members want to learn more about the annual fraud recovery of more than $3 billion of taxpayers’ dollars by the Justice Department.
Leahy praised Smith’s newly created intellectual property subcommittee as a unanimously supported bipartisan effort to stop online criminals. Another top priority is to modernize the patent system through the Patent Reform Act, he said.
“Our intellectual property-based businesses are among the most productive in our economy and among its best employers,” said Leahy.
Leahy said his committee has much to do. He emphasized the desire for more aggressive measures to protect competition to create jobs and businesses, revisiting the Communications Assistance to Law Enforcement Act to further citizens’ privacy rights, and reintroducing the Faster Freedom of Information Act later on this year.
Noting that Chief Justice John G. Roberts Jr. recently wrote in his annual report on the urgent need to fill Federal judicial vacancies, Leahy once again lamented the destructive influence of partisanship, citing overburdened courts and crippling caseloads.
With vacancies in 85 district courts and 16 circuit courts, Leahy said he would do his best to get nominees confirmed. “We cannot ask people to take on public service as a judge, and then subject them to needless, unexplained, humiliating partisan delays in the confirmation process,” Leahy said.
The Senate Judiciary Committee will have a new top Republican in the 112th Congress.
Sen. Charles Grassley (R-Iowa) is slated to take over the ranking member post from Sen. Jeff Sessions (R-Ala.), pending resolution of a fight over Senate filibuster rules that is holding up committee organizing for the new Congress.
Grassley is moving to Judiciary from a plum perch as ranking member of the tax-writing Finance Committee. A GOP rule limits Senate Republicans to no more than six years in top committee spots, and Grassley had reached his limit on Finance.
Grassley struck an agreement with Sessions in 2009 to take over the Judiciary job this year. The agreement became necessary when Sen. Arlen Specter of Pennsylvania switched from the Republican to the Democratic party in April 2009, suddenly opening up the ranking member spot.
Under the rules, Grassley – the most senior Republican on the Judiciary panel – would have had to claim the ranking membership right away to hold it for the full six-year limit; otherwise the position would go to Sessions.
But Grassley didn’t want to leave Finance in the middle of high-stakes negotiations over the health care bill, according to reports at the time. He worked out a deal whereby Sessions would voluntarily leave the Judiciary post for the 112th Congress. Sessions is now slated to become ranking member of the Senate Budget Committee.
Grassley has served 30 years on the Judiciary panel but never served before as its top Republican. On legal issues, he is perhaps best known as a champion of whistleblowers and the False Claims Act, the statute whereby private citizens can file lawsuits against companies that defraud the government.
More recently, Grassley was a proponent of a controversial whistleblower provision in the Dodd-Frank financial regulatory law that has caused anxiety among corporate counsel.
The original language of the provision gave the Securities and Exchange Commission discretion in how to reward whistleblowers who bring the agency tips that lead to successful cases. When the provision got to the Senate, it was strengthened to give successful tipsters up to 30 percent of any fine over $1 million.
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A senior Justice Department official on Wednesday urged restraint as Congress considers updates to one of the leading digital privacy laws.
Testifying before the Senate Judiciary Committee, Associate Deputy Attorney General James A. Baker declined to specify what changes the DOJ thinks the 1986 Electronic Communications Privacy Act needs. But he said the DOJ is committed to working with Congress if it drafts revisions to the bill.
“It’s very important that we get this right,” Baker said. “We just have to do it carefully.”
Baker said any changes to the bill must protect privacy, while not limiting the ability of law enforcement officials to protect Americans from cybercrimes. He noted in his written testimony that authorities have been able to apprehend suspected child pornographers, drug traffickers and murderers through the authorities granted by the bill.
“For many years, EPCA has provided vital tools to law enforcement to investigate crime and to keep us safe, at the same time protecting individual privacy online,” said Senate Judiciary Committee Chairman Patrick Leahy (D-Vt.) “As the country continues to grapple with the urgent need to develop a comprehensive national cybersecurity strategy, determining how best to bring this privacy law into the digital age will be one of our biggest challenges, especially here in Congress.”
The top Republican staffer on the Senate Judiciary Committee will step down on Friday, the ranking GOP senator on the panel said Thursday.
Staff Director Brian Benczkowski will join the law firm of Kirkland & Ellis LLP, according to an individual familiar with his plans. He served as the top Senate Judiciary Committee aide to Sen. Jeff Sessions of Alabama, after the senator succeeded Sen. Arlen Specter (D-Pa.) in spring 2009 as the ranking panel Republican.
“I’m going to miss Brian a lot,” Sessions said at the Senate Judiciary Committee meeting Thursday. “I rely on him and depend on him.”
Benczkowski held various posts at the Justice Department during the George W. Bush administration, including chief of staff to Attorney General Michael Mukasey, Deputy Assistant Attorney General for Legislative Affairs and Chief of Staff at the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms, and Explosives. He also served as a majority counsel on the House Judiciary Committee under then-Chairman James Sensenbrenner (R-Wis.)
Deputy Staff Director Matt Miner will take over Benczkowski’s responsibilities.