The myth of nonpartisan U.S. attorneys

When Sen. Charles Schumer (D-N.Y.) introduced fired U.S. attorney David Iglesias at Tuesday's Judiciary Committee hearings, he noted that, among other attainments, Iglesias had served as the inspiration for the Navy lawyer played by Tom Cruise in "A Few Good Men."

Iglesias, who displayed enough screen presence to play himself should "A Few Good Prosecutors" sequel get made, was a dream witness for Democrats who believe that eight U.S. attorneys were recently purged for sinister reasons. Iglesias seemed to embody the ideal of nonpartisan justice, tarnished when Sen. Pete Domenici had the gall to telephone Iglesias to ask about the "time frame" of an election-year investigation of a prominent Democrat.

Democrats were shocked, shocked that politics might invade the precincts of justice. As Schumer put it: "We have spent decades trying to insulate U.S. attorneys from the political process and it looks more and more like all that has been undone in the last few years."

But even as Iglesias told the Senate he "felt sick" that a senator would transgress the line between politics and the law, the former prosecutor demonstrated why Domenici might have thought the phone call was worth his while.

Asked by Sen. Arlen Specter (R-Pa.) why he hadn't told the Justice Department about Domenici's call or a similar one from U.S. Rep. Heather Wilson (R-N.M.), Iglesias responded that he was "conflicted" because Domenici was a mentor who had recommended him to the White House six years ago, and that Wilson was a "friend and ally" whose career (and improvement as a public speaker) Iglesias had followed closely.

Indeed, Igesias and Wilson were Republican ticket-mates in the 1998 elections, in which Iglesias was the party's nominee for state attorney general (he lost) while Wilson was running for re-election to the House.

Iglesias' pathway from politician to prosecutor is well-worn. In 1966, a young Pittsburgh lawyer named Dick Thornburgh ran for Congress in my hometown (slogan: "Thornburgh as in Pittsburgh") and was defeated by the Democratic incumbent. In 1969, Thornburgh, clearly a comer, was named U.S. attorney for Pittsburgh by then-president Richard M. Nixon, beginning a career arc that later led to the governorship of Pennsylvania and the position of U.S. attorney general.

Like Iglesias, Thornburgh alienated Republicans with some of his prosecutions. It's a familiar story. The bad news obscured by the Democrats' current indignation is that U.S. attorney positions have been political plums under presidents of both parties. The good news is that politically appointed U.S. attorneys often disappoint their political sponsors once in office.

Call it the Thomas Becket Syndrome, in honor of the 12th century chancellor of England who was installed as archbishop of Canterbury by King Henry II, only to take his new portfolio seriously, prompting the king to wonder why no one would rid him of "this meddlesome priest." Some of the king's cronies complied by assassinating Becket in his cathedral. Domenici's displeasure with Iglesias didn't have such a violent dénouement.

I'm not defending Domenici, who has given a bad name to the politics that pervade the selection of U.S. attorneys. He shouldn't have called Iglesias, and if the senator's displeasure over a particular case led to Iglesias' firing, that really is a scandal.

But despite what Schumer may lead you to believe, home-state senators traditionally have regarded the selection of U.S. attorneys as their patronage perk, even though the selection is nominally a presidential decision. Indeed, the sluggishness in replacing U.S. attorneys would be less of a problem if the White House didn't have to touch base with home-state senators before sending a name to the Senate for confirmation.

Sometimes a senator will recommend a world-class prosecutor. That's what happened when former Sen. Peter Fitzgerald (R-Ill.) proposed Patrick Fitzgerald, the future scourge of Scooter Libby (and no relation to the senator) for U.S. attorney in Chicago. Sen. Fitzgerald told the Washington Post that he promoted lawyer Fitzgerald because "he is the original Untouchable." But a senator is just as likely to back a promising member of the home-state party, someone like Dick Thornburgh or David Iglesias.

This system need not, and should not, result in any perversion of justice. But it's a far cry from the pristine professionalism of the process Schumer described. If senators really want to depoliticize the position of U.S. attorney, they should stop treating the post as a patronage plum.

Michael McGough is The Times' senior editorial writer.

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