Next AG Must Regain Public Trust (Sen. Patrick Leahy)

For the next Attorney General of the United States, a big job becomes even bigger. Along with helping keep Americans safe, protecting their rights, combating crime and enforcing the law, and managing more than 100,000 employees and a budget extending into the tens of billions of dollars, the next Attorney General must regain public trust and begin the process of restoring the Department of Justice to be worthy of its name.

At a department that has been needlessly and disastrously run into the ditch, he or she will have the challenge of repairing damage inflicted by a White House that injected politics into every level of the agency.

As a former prosecutor I know how disappointed the dedicated men and women of law enforcement are about the abuses that congressional investigations have uncovered; many have described their feelings to me.

The dismay runs deep, from the career attorneys at Justice and in our U.S. Attorney offices, to the police officers on the beat.

I hope the President will choose wisely in filling this important vacancy at this important time. There is no shortage of talented leaders who could unite the American people and the Senate and start to rebuild the Department's rock-bottom morale. The Constitution prescribes that Presidents seek the advice and the consent of the Senate in filling such vacancies, and senators of both political parties want to help the President get this right. He should accept our offer.

The Justice Department is different from other cabinet departments. It is the heart of a justice system that is the envy of the world. The Founders wanted to buffer law enforcement and the justice system from political influence because in America, no one -- not even the President -- is supposed to be above the law. In North Carolina's 1776 constitution, the attorney general was given the same life tenure as the judges, while its governors were elected for one-year terms. And in its earliest days, the precursor of today's Justice Department offered legal advice both to Congress and to the President. In recent years, some have even suggested 10-year terms for our attorneys general to further shield them from White House interference.

It is deeply saddening and infuriating that this history and these standards have been ignored. Considering the evasive testimony 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 troubling evidence revealed through our hearings needs to be a lesson to those who hold these high offices in the future, so that our Justice Department is never 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.

The Department needs strong, clear-eyed leadership. This is not a time for cronyism, and this is not a time for a placeholder. 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 that gives our system accountability and responsiveness to the will of the people.



  • A proven track record of independence to ensure that he or she will act as an independent 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, the Congress, and the Justice Department's workforce - credibility and respect that have been frittered away.



  • 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. He or she is not the secretary of a department but the Attorney General of the United States.



  • A commitment to restore vigilance and vitality to a Civil Rights Division that has been run onto the rocks by misdirection and by shameful efforts - 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's 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 mass firing of U.S. attorneys and about the legal basis for the warrantless wiretapping program.


An earlier Attorney General appointed by the President's father remarked: "Nothing would be so destructive to the rule of law as to permit purely political considerations to overrun sound legal judgment."

The departing Attorney General showed a lack of independence from the President and White House. We have seen the disastrous consequences.

The new Attorney General cannot interpret our laws to mean whatever the President wants them to mean. The Attorney General is supposed to 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.