"A Terrible Week At Justice"

Lawyer Andrew Cohen analyzes legal affairs for CBS News and CBSNews.com.
It has been a terrible week at the Justice Department and the folks in charge over there have no one to blame but themselves. First, by cowardly consenting to the political pressure to dismiss eight good and decent U.S. Attorneys, Attorney General Alberto Gonzales damaged the reputation and credibility of the institution he purportedly leads.

U.S. Attorneys—federal prosecutors-- are the backbone of the federal justice system and the thought that some of the good ones would have to give up their places for political reasons strikes at the very heart of the notion that our laws should free from bias, prejudice and personal favor. The controversy surrounding how this was handled would be bad enough in any administration. But the fact that it occurred during this administration, already shamed by blatant cronyism, makes the matter worse.

Then, Friday morning, we learned that violent crimes rates have risen sharply over the past two years thanks to gun violence and major drug use in some of our largest cities and in the nation's heartland. The rise coincides roughly with the Attorney General's tenure in office. Should we blame him for it? Maybe not. But should we judge him on that record and ask what he is doing to stem the tide? Absolutely.

I imagine his response will have little to do with this other bit of bad news. We also learned Friday morning that the Federal Bureau of Investigation violated rules, regulations and perhaps even the law through its recent use of "National Security Letters"—administrative subpoenas that allow the feds to search business records without first getting court approval to do so. According to the Washington Post: "The inspector general's audit found 22 possible breaches of internal FBI and Justice Department regulations -- some of which were potential violations of law -- in a sampling of 293 'national security letters.' The FBI identified 26 potential violations in other cases."

It is no wonder, perhaps, that Arlen Specter (R.-Pa.), the frequently candid ranking member of the Senate Judiciary Committee, said Thursday that we may have a new Attorney General "sooner rather than later." The buck has got to stop somewhere, at some point, and if the grim tidings continue much longer pressure almost certainly will build upon Gonzales to fall upon his sword for the good of the Department if not the nation. That's not a prediction. Call it a forecast.