Legal beagle


IT SHOULD SURPRISE no one that Atty. Gen. Alberto R. Gonzales finds himself in the middle of a growing scandal. But don’t blame him for the lack of principled leadership at the Justice Department. Blame his boss. President Bush appointed a man clearly unqualified for the job.

We opposed Gonzales’ nomination to be attorney general two years ago, arguing that the nation’s top law enforcement job should go to someone who understands the limits as well as the power of the law, and someone who understands that his loyalty is to the Constitution as much as it is to the president. Gonzales’ atrocious performance as White House counsel, when he enabled far too many shortcuts in the war on terror, was ample reason to disqualify him for attorney general.

This attorney general is loyal to a fault to Bush. He is too loyal to be an effective lawyer, causing the president harm both when he worked at the White House and now that he oversees the Justice Department.


The administration’s broader disdain for legal niceties underlies recent revelations about the abuse of Patriot Act powers to secretly obtain private data about U.S. citizens, as well as the dismissal of U.S. attorneys. In the case of these prosecutors, Gonzales was apparently driven by his desire to continue making himself useful to the president and the party. That’s why his chief of staff, D. Kyle Sampson, resigned Monday. He was working a little too closely with the White House in orchestrating the ouster of several federal prosecutors late last year.

U.S. attorneys aren’t like judges, who (once seated, at least) are supposed to be entirely divorced from the political process. U.S. attorneys are political appointees, and presidents have the right to appoint and remove them. That’s why proposed legislation by Sen. Dianne Feinstein (D-Calif.) to allow judges to name U.S. attorneys on an interim basis, until someone else is confirmed, was misguided. But as plenty of conservative Republicans have noted, this administration’s incompetence means it probably will end up having to cede more executive authority than is desirable. Plain-spoken Sen. Tom Coburn (R-Okla.) said the handling of the U.S. attorneys shows an “idiocy on the part of the administration.”

The White House has been unwilling to accept that the federal government’s legal institutions do not exist to further the political expedient of the moment. It’s one thing for a new president to remove all U.S. attorneys who served a previous administration, as Bill Clinton did. It’s quite another matter for the White House to meticulously monitor the political fealty of its own appointees and to seek to remove any deemed disloyal.

The fact that the White House was complaining to the Justice Department that David Iglesias, the well-regarded federal prosecutor in New Mexico, was insufficiently committed to taking up voter fraud cases that Republicans cared deeply about is rather alarming. Alarming, but not surprising -- not so long as Gonzales is attorney general.