Duty, Honor — and the Justice Department

Lawyer Andrew Cohen analyzes legal affairs for CBS News and CBSNews.com.
You fire eight bright, aggressive, savvy lawyers for reasons that have little to do with their job performance and guess what? You are likely to be sued. So it should come as a surprise to no one, including the nation's top lawyer, Attorney General Alberto R. Gonzales, that at least one of the eight fired U.S. Attorneys is taking legal action to determine whether his dismissal violated federal law. You ride the tiger long enough you eventually end up inside.

Newsweek is reporting this week that David Iglesias, the former U.S. Attorney for New Mexico, has filed a formal complaint with the Office of Special Counsel, an independent federal agency, to determine whether the Justice Department violated his rights under Uniformed Services Employment and Reemployment Rights Act. USERRA is the federal law that is designed to protect our military personnel from job discrimination when they return from service or otherwise are required to undertake their service to the detriment of their ability to do their jobs.

What does that law have to do with Iglesias? Perhaps plenty. In addition to being a loyal Bush appointee until he was fired by Gonzales and Company, Newsweek reports that Iglesias also is "a captain in the Navy reserve, teaching military officers about international terrorism." Iglesias told Newsweek that he decided he had better pursue some sort of legal action when he learned that one of the so-called justifications for his dismissal was that he was deemed "an absentee landlord" by Justice Department officials. He was absent, of course, because he was doing his duty for the military.

There is no guarantee that Iglesias ultimately will win his case—no way to tell whether the provisions of USERRA apply to top-of-the-line political appointees like a federal prosecutor. But you can imagine that political ammunition this will provide the Attorney General's ever-expanding list of critics and doubters. Can't you just hear a member of the Senate Judiciary Committee on April 17th asking Gonzales if he even knew that Iglesias was honoring his country by serving in the military while also acting as a U.S. Attorney? And can't you just hear the Attorney General fumbling with his answer?

There is no good answer. If Gonzales knew that Iglesias was a captain in the Navy reserve, and still held it against him, the Justice Department isn't practicing what it is preaching in USERRA cases all over the country. It is guilty of hypocrisy, at the least, and unequal protection of law at worst. And if Gonzales did not know that the man he was about to fire was helping fight the war on terror then it is just another example of the carelessness and negligence that has marked the Gonzales era at the Justice Department. Iglesias and the other prosecutors were treated shabbily by their bosses and leaders. It is no surprise that they are beginning to strike back. Any good lawyer would.