Lawyer Andrew Cohen analyzes legal affairs for CBS News and CBSNews.com.
Only a few short years ago, they both shared a brilliant future- two smart, young, good-looking, seasoned federal prosecutors, tremendously successful and politically connected; shoo-ins for the highest level of public office. And, indeed, they both rocketed to the top of the Justice Department as Deputy Attorney General, one after the other. It was there that their paths diverged.
The first, James B. Comey, served President George W. Bush for about two years, from 2003 to 2005, and then left for private practice with a sterling reputation for fairness and integrity intact. In fact, years after his departure, Comey still is remembered with great reverence by some Justice Department lawyers for his principled stand in the legal war on terror. It was Comey, acting on behalf of a hospitalized John Ashcroft, who famously refused to sign off on the National Security Agency's domestic surveillance program because he believed it violated the law. It is Comey whom many Washington insiders believe should be the next U.S. Attorney General should the current one, Alberto Gonzales, finally succumb to political pressure and his own conscience and resign his post.
The second, Paul J. McNulty,served President Bush for about 18 months, from 2005 until yesterday, and leaves the post in disgust if not disgrace. Once himself a high-profile U.S. Attorney, Virginia's poster child in the legal war on terrorism, McNulty becomes the latest but probably not the last casualty in the still-burning scandal over the dismissal last year of eight—some now say nine—U.S. Attorneys. No matter what his official explanation may befor his decision to get out of Dodge, and no matter what he says from here on in, McNulty now is linked forever with this terrible mess. It will follow him all the rest of his professional days. That is because when it was his turn to stand up for the independence of the Justice Department, McNulty remained seated and kept others from rising as well.
So today is the first day of the rest of McNulty's life. He begins to prepare for the richness of private practice—no doubt in a cushy job with a high-powered law firm where he will leverage his contacts in and out of government on behalf of his clients. He also no doubt should prepare to come back to Capitol Hill, perhaps with a nice immunity grant, to testify again before the Congress about his role in the purge of the prosecutors. Now that he is a private citizen, and if it is true that he is not happy with the current southward direction of the Justice Department, he is likely to make a compelling witness with plenty to offer lawmakers in the way of insight into what went wrong. Certainly he'll be able to shed more light on the topic than has Gonzales.
But today also is a big day for Comey, who himself returns to Capitol Hill to testify again about the U.S. Attorney scandal. Comey will tell members of the Senate Judiciary Committee more about how the Justice Department is supposed to handle U.S. Attorneys and in doing so highlight the vast gulf between how Gonzales and Company have led the Department (to its current ruin) and how true professionals had done so successfully in the past. Want to see the difference between good governance and poor leadership; between selfless public service and self-serving partisanship? Check out the fates and futures of McNulty and Comey. The first faces scorn. The second respect.