You haven't heard the last of complaints about President Bush's use of a little-noticed provision of the Patriot Act to give a more-or-less permanent "interim" U.S. attorney appointment in Little Rock to Tim Griffin, a political operative from the Karl Rove team.
U.S. Sen. Mark Pryor, who earlier had objected to Bush's bypassing of the usual Senate confirmation process now says this loophole may have been used elsewhere in the country. Leading Democrats are unhappy and Pryor has joined Dianne Feinstean and Patrick Leahy in legislation that would return the power to appoint interim U.S. attorneys to the district courts, where it lodged for many years. In the alternative, of course, Bush could submit Griffin and other nominees for Senate confirmation, which is how it ought to work.
This has been a local issue until now. But the legislation, plus the suggestion that U.S. attorneys are being pushed out for political cronies under the Patriot Act seems likely to get some national attention. As Pryor put it, "It appears that the Administration has chosen to use this provision, which was intended to help protect our nation, to circumvent the transparent Constitutional Senate confirmation process to reward political allies."
Pryor's news release on the jump.
MARK PRYOR NEWS RELEASE
“It has come to our attention that the Bush Administration is pushing out
“And, we have no idea why this is happening. The Attorney General could have legitimate reasons for asking for specific resignations, or this could be motivated by political concerns or worse, derailing on-going investigations. Again, we just don’t know.
“We believe that this use of expanded executive authority to appoint interim replacements indefinitely undermines essential constitutional checks and balances. It creates unnecessary instability in these offices and has dramatic implications for important cases currently underway. Given all that is going on with this country and the message from the American people this past election, I am surprised that the Administration would pursue a strategy to circumvent the Senate confirmation process and unsettle these important positions.
“U.S. Attorneys around the country are working on public corruption cases, terrorism cases, narcotics and drug trafficking, fighting gangs and violent crime. Which of these cases are impacted by the Attorney General’s actions has yet to be determined,” Senator Feinstein continued.
“The bottom line is this:
“U.S. Attorneys are the key federal law enforcement officers of their states and hold enormous responsibility for implementing anti-terrorism efforts, prosecuting important and often complex cases, and leading the fight against public corruption,” said Senator Leahy, a former prosecutor. “Political gerrymandering of these important posts is wrong and an affront to our criminal justice system. It is vital that those holding these critical positions be free from any inappropriate influence and subject to the check and balance of the confirmation process.”
In a little noticed provision included in the Patriot Act reauthorization last year, the Administration’s authority to appoint interim U.S. Attorneys was greatly expanded. The law was changed so that if a vacancy arises the Attorney General may appoint a replacement for an indefinite period of time – thus completely avoiding the Senate confirmation process.
The authority to fill U.S. Attorney vacancies on an interim basis was first given to the Attorney General in 1986, but the interim position was valid for a period of only 120 days. And prior to 1986, District Courts had the authority to appoint interim U.S. Attorneys when positions became vacant.
Senators Feinstein, Leahy, and Pryor have learned that the Department of Justice has asked several U.S. Attorneys from around the country to resign their positions prior to the end of their terms without cause. The number of U.S. Attorneys, currently or historically, who have been asked to resign their positions without cause is still unknown.
The measure introduced by Senators Feinstein, Leahy, and Pryor would amend the current statute and restore appointment authority to the District Court within which the vacancy arises.