President Bush has yet to name his nominee to succeed Alberto Gonzales as attorney general, but whoever he or she is will have their work cut out for them.
The new attorney general will inherit a wounded institution marred by scandal, desertions by senior staff, extremely low morale and a host of thorny issues, ranging from immigration to the treatment of detainees held at Guantanamo Bay. And the new attorney general will likely have a short time — only about 16 months — in which to leave a mark.
For now, that task falls to Paul Clement, the solicitor general, who was asked by President Bush to head the agency until a new attorney general is nominated, then confirmed by the Senate.
The confirmation process is likely to be contentious, as the Democrat-controlled Congress is expected to carefully scrutinize any nominee. In fact, Sen. Charles Schumer (D-NY) has already laid down that gauntlet.
"Now it will be up to the White House to choose a replacement who is, above all, a professional, not a partisan, not a pal. Unlike the last time, he needs to pick the best person, not his best friend," Schumer said at a news conference Monday.
The new attorney general faces first and foremost a recruitment challenge. In the past six months, several senior Justice Department officials have resigned, as the cloud hanging over the agency grew thicker. Not since Watergate days has the Justice Department had so many positions vacant, says former department official Daniel Metcalfe.
Finding people willing—and qualified—to take these jobs will not be easy. Not many lawyers are willing to leave lucrative positions with private law firms for a short-term tenure at the beleaguered Justice Department.
In addition, the next attorney general will have to contend with the festering wounds of the scandal that erupted over the firing of several federal prosecutors. Congressional Democrats are not likely to drop their investigations and hearings now that Alberto Gonzales has resigned.
Some analysts see the U.S. attorney firings as only the flash point of what had been a long-simmering problem at Gonzales's Justice Department: a tendency to hire and promote based on political ideology rather than merit.
"The attorney general is somewhere between a politically appointed policy official and a quasi-judicial official, an arbiter and representative of the law," says Sam Buell, a former assistant attorney general and one of the lead prosecutors in the Enron case. "Everyone in the institution, top to bottom, has always bought into that notion. But under Gonzales, that commitment was under fire."
The next attorney general will have to work hard to restore that commitment, as well as boost morale among the agency's 125,000 employees, analysts say. The Justice Department is a huge agency, which oversees not only federal prosecutors, but also the FBI, the Drug Enforcement Agency, the Federal Bureau of Prisons and many other departments.
Tough Job to Fill
Traditionally, the position of attorney general has been a high-profile yet often thankless job. Attorneys general of years past have sometimes found themselves caught between their fealty to the law and loyalty to the president who hired them. That inherent tension prompted Herbert Brownell, President Dwight Eisenhower's attorney general, to conclude, "Any attorney general who is popular isn't doing his job.'"
The question is: Who is both qualified for the position and willing to accept it, given the fact that they are likely to be in office for only another 16 months? Not many, analysts say.
A few names, though, have cropped up. Topping the short list is Michael Chertoff, the director of Homeland Security. He's a former federal judge and Justice Department official who knows Washington. Analysts differ on how tough a confirmation process he would face; some say it could be relatively smooth, but others mention possible concerns over his handling of the Katrina aftermath.
Also, nominating Chertoff as attorney general means that President Bush would need to fill the Homeland Security post, and that means another contentious confirmation hearing.
"Getting the attorney general's position filled is going to be tough enough without asking for a second high-profile position," says Sen. Sam Brownback (R-KS) in an interview on MSNBC.
The Advantages of 'Short-Timers'
That's why President Bush might look outside his administration to find a successor. One name that surfaces is Larry Thompson. He was John Ashcroft's deputy at the Justice Department and is widely respected.
"He's viewed as a real steady hand, a cool customer," says Buell, the former federal prosecutor.
The biggest mistake that President Bush could make, Buell says, is choosing another Alberto Gonzales — someone fiercely loyal to the president but without an intimate knowledge of the Justice Department.
"No matter how well-intentioned or free of taint that person might be, if they don't know the bureaucracy, they're not likely to be able to put it together again," Buell says.
In any event, President Bush is likely to take great care in choosing Gonzales's successor. He will need to choose someone who can be confirmed by a hostile Congress and still be counted on to toe the administration line when it comes to vexing issues, like Guantanamo Bay, as well as any issues that might arise from the flood of congressional investigations into the Bush administration.
President Bush leaves Washington next Monday for Australia, and Gonzales' replacement might not be named by then, a senior administration official told the Associated Press.
The fact that the next attorney general will be a short-timer can actually be advantageous, some analysts say. Short-timers won't be busy positioning themselves for their next job, and therefore can make necessary but unpopular changes.
"The new attorney general can't help but be seen as a savior, as someone who stepped in and stopped the bleeding," Buell says.