U.S. Attorney Vacancies: Do They Matter?

Christy at Firedogake writes about the numerous U.S. Attorney vacancies around the country and yesterday's New York Times article about them. She posits the vacancies put us at risk. The Times reported:

Among the 93 United States attorneys, who serve as the chief federal prosecutors for their regions, there are 24 vacancies. The White House has announced nominations for only six of those offices, which means that several of the jobs may remain unfilled for the rest of the Bush administration.

The Times quotes senior department officials as saying "the work of the department has been severely disrupted by [Gonzales'] troubles.

I think it's worth noting that a big (if not the biggest)reason for not being able to fill the vacancies is that very few people are going to leave current jobs to take the U.S. Attorney's job when the appointment will expire in less than 16 months if a Democrat is elected. Even if a Republican is elected, new U.S. Attorneys may be appointed.

The job is, after all, a political plum. It's awarded based on recommendations from the district's senators, it almost exclusively goes to a member of the President's party and very often it's based on the person's contributions, including fundraising efforts, to the successful presidential candidate.

As for the U.S. Attorney firing scandal and Gonzales' problems disrupting the work of the Department, I haven't seen it in the Districts I practice in. I don't doubt morale is suffering and I don't know of any Assistant U.S. Attorneys who are happy with the situation, but work goes on in the federal courts, people get sent to jail daily, new cases are being brought, existing cases are being argued and Justice Department guidelines are being followed. In other words, the war on drugs, war on civil liberties and trend towards draconian sentences continues unabated.

I've spoken to AUSA's who are embarrassed and critical of Gonzales, but it's not affecting their work. Every district without an appointed U.S. Attorney has an Acting U.S. Attorney. The vacancies are in name only.

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    Which begs the question (none / 0) (#1)
    by Big Tent Democrat on Sun Jul 29, 2007 at 03:18:32 PM EST
    Would we be better off WITHOUT politically appointed USAs?

    I think the answer is yes.

    The questions (none / 0) (#2)
    by Jeralyn on Sun Jul 29, 2007 at 03:23:18 PM EST
    I'm addressing are whether the sky is falling in our federal courts because of the vacancies or Gonzales' problems and I don't think it is -- and why the vacancies are unfulfilled and Bush hasn't nominated many replacements. At this point it's a temporary job for 16 months or less, not a particularly attractive prospect.

    But I am positing (none / 0) (#3)
    by Big Tent Democrat on Sun Jul 29, 2007 at 03:26:56 PM EST
    that your proposition begs the question of if we EVER need politically appointed USAs.

    I think mine is a fair question in the context.


    It's a fair question (none / 0) (#4)
    by Jeralyn on Sun Jul 29, 2007 at 03:33:51 PM EST
    so lets have a go at it. I'd sure hate to see them elected the way state DA's are. What did you have in mind?

    They are members of the executive branch so they are appointed by the Chief Executive (President.) Should there be a nominating commission like there are for judges?

    Very few U.S. Attorneys have extensive trial experience as the job is mostly an administrative one, running the office and making sure the AG's policies are implemented and followed. Many don't try a lot of cases once they're in the top spot.

    What qualifications are needed?


    Career civil service pool (none / 0) (#5)
    by Big Tent Democrat on Sun Jul 29, 2007 at 03:36:05 PM EST
    Pick from the ranks.

    Wisconsin's positions are filled (none / 0) (#9)
    by Ben Masel on Mon Jul 30, 2007 at 01:32:33 AM EST
    by a nominating committee.

    The Senators, or ranking House member, then get strikes for the list of nominees.

    Deal dating from the '70s, maintained by Kohl, Feingold, and Sensenbrenner.


    How about similar to (none / 0) (#6)
    by Deconstructionist on Sun Jul 29, 2007 at 04:19:18 PM EST

      I don't have a real problem with political appointment but we pick FPDs basically by having people apply in an open process  and a committee established by the Court of Appeals assesses the applicants and makes a recommendation to the Court.

    Good idea (none / 0) (#7)
    by Jeralyn on Sun Jul 29, 2007 at 04:29:53 PM EST
    I served on the 10th Circuit's Committee a few years ago to pick the Federal Defender. There were prosecutors and defense counsel on it and others and it worked great.

    But I too don't have a problem with the political appointment process. Maybe I'm just used to it. I like that we get a new U.S. Attorney with a new President. It's like an automatic term limit.


    On a related note, (none / 0) (#8)
    by Deconstructionist on Sun Jul 29, 2007 at 04:31:33 PM EST
      I think the "politics" are not so much at the district/ U.S. Attorney level.  I've been around for Republican-->Democrat--> Republican administrations and multiple U.S. Attorneys of both parties. Many of the same AUSAs who do the real work have been there all along and I really don't notice a difference in how cases are prosecuted based on who is in power.

      What I do notice is that BUDGETS and policy priorities set in Washington  affect how many of certain types of cases are prosecuted by establishing how much money is devoted to different areas. For example, In the Clinton years we saw more health care fraud, prescription abuse, etc. cases targeting doctors and now under Bush we see more vote fraud cases targeting politicians.