Reno & Gonzales, Apples & Oranges

(CBS)
Lawyer Andrew Cohen analyzes legal affairs for CBS News and CBSNews.com.
There is so much disinformation and misinformation floating around cyberspace these days about the firing of eight federal prosecutors that you would almost think people on one side of the debate and the other are writing about and analyzing two completely different stories. Over and over again, supporters of the White House, and Attorney General Alberto Gonzales, seem to want to compare the current controversy with, especially, the decision by President Bill Clinton in 1993 to dismiss all of the federal prosecutors who had served under his predecessor, George H. W. Bush.

To compare these two episodes is to say that when a dog bites a man it is as newsworthy as when a man bites a dog. The comparison simply doesn't work. As I have mentioned here before, every incoming president seeks to install into office his crop of federal prosecutors. Republican presidents have done this and so have Democrats and it is such routine that it barely makes any news. Existing federal prosecutors know that, when the president who appointed them leaves office, they had better start updating the resume. Like it or not, this practice is not controversial. It is a rule that has governed the game for decades.

So, please, let's all stop trying to compare the "Reno 93" with the "Gonzales 8." Even Republican lawmakers are growing uneasy with that inapt comparison. One legal scholar after another, and one veteran Justice Department watcher after another, has come forward to say that it is extraordinary for a White House to fire a federal prosecutor mid-term, or even mid-presidency, absent some extraordinary misfeasance or malfeasance on the part of the U.S. Attorney. Here is just the latest to do so.

The men and women who were fired by the White House and the Justice Department were not drunkards or dope addicts or bribe-taking sleazebags. They were not legal loose cannons or leftover Hippies from some Democratic administration. They were Republicans and had gotten their jobs in the first place because they had established themselves worthy on both legal and political grounds. Go ahead and read John McKay's story, eloquently told last night on the Evening News, and then argue that he is not precisely the sort of person who ought to be the bulwark of our federal legal system.

Finally, a word about two sources I used earlier this week as we began this dialogue. Some cyber folks, trying to attack the credibility of eminent professors Stanley Katz and Stanley Kutler, took the time to research their campaign contributions. I do not know, and don't necessarily care, where the two professors I interviewed choose to spend their money. I do know, however, that when I asked them to name their best and favorite attorneys general, they both picked a Republican. One picked Ed. Levy, President Ford's attorney general. The other picked President Eisenhower's attorney general, Herbert Brownell.



  • Andrew Cohen

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