A senator’s checklist

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Sen. Patrick Leahy (D-Vt.) is chairman of the Senate Judiciary Committee.

The next attorney general of the United States will inherit a department that has been needlessly and disastrously run into the ditch, and will face the challenge of repairing damage inflicted by a White House that injected politics into every level of the agency.

Like previous attorneys general, he or she will have to protect rights, combat crime and enforce the law, managing more than 100,000 employees. But the toughest part of the job may be regaining the public’s trust after four years of partisanship and political abuses.

The Justice Department is different from other Cabinet departments. The founders wanted to buffer law enforcement and the justice system from political influence because in the U.S., no one -- not even the president -- is supposed to be above the law. North Carolina’s 1776 constitution gave its attorney general the same life tenure as its judges, while its governors were elected for one-year terms. In recent years, some have suggested 10-year terms for our attorneys general to further shield them from White House interference.


It is deeply saddening that the department’s history and standards have been ignored by the Bush administration, in incidents ranging from the politically motivated firing of U.S. attorneys to the creation of a legally dubious warrantless wiretapping program lacking proper checks and balances. Considering the evasive testimony that Congress has heard time and again from various Justice Department witnesses, one would almost think the department’s motto had changed to “I don’t recall.”

The department must never be subverted in this way again. No Justice Department should be manipulated into a political arm of the White House, whether occupied by a Republican or a Democrat.

Soon -- perhaps as early as today -- the president will nominate a new attorney general to replace Alberto R. Gonzales. The department needs strong, clear-eyed leadership. This is not a time for cronyism, and this is not a time for a place-holder. Here is a checklist of qualities that help define the kind of leader the Department of Justice needs right now:

* Experience and sound judgment grounded in respect for the law and for the vibrant framework of checks and balances among co-equal branches of government.

* A proven track record of independence to ensure that he or she will act as a check on this administration’s expansive claims of virtually unlimited executive power.

* The commitment and the personal attributes needed to regain credibility and the respect of the public, Congress and the Justice Department’s workforce.


* A willingness to apply the law without fear or favor, without regard to partisan politics, and to stand up to the White House when necessary. The attorney general is the people’s lawyer, not the president’s.

* A commitment to restore vigilance and vitality to a civil rights division that has been run onto the rocks by misdirection and by shameful -- possibly even illegal -- efforts to replace dedicated career attorneys with applicants who were improperly hired for their political loyalty to the Bush administration.

* A respect for Congress’ oversight role. At its best, the confirmation process can be a clarifying moment. It can also be a catalyst for resolving problems like the White House’s refusal to provide witnesses and documents that are needed to answer questions about the U.S. attorneys scandal and the warrantless wiretapping program.

Above all, the new attorney general cannot interpret our laws to mean whatever the president wants them to mean. The departing attorney general showed a lack of independence from the president and the White House. We have seen the disastrous consequences.

The next attorney general must uphold the rule of law on behalf of all of the American people.

The president begins this process. Through his choice for attorney general, he can be a uniter or a divider. For the sake of the Department of Justice and its vital missions on behalf of the American people, this would be an excellent time to work with us to unite the nation.