Context: How U.S. Attorneys Are Hired and Fired

Several U.S. attorneys fired in December testified on Capitol Hill last week that their dismissals were tied to political pressure from members of Congress and Department of Justice officials.

But the Justice Department said most of the attorneys were asked to resign because of poor job performance.

David Burnham co-directs the Transactional Records Access Clearinghouse, an organization that collects and analyzes information from the federal government. He is also the author of Above the Law: Secret Deals, Political Fixes, and Other Misadventures of the U.S. Department of Justice.

Burnham discussed the prosecutors' dismissals with Renee Montagne. Their conversation is excerpted below:

How unusual is it for a U.S. attorney to be fired?

It's very unusual. Richard Nixon fired one when he was in office. [Jimmy] Carter fired a U.S. attorney who was making an investigation of a Democratic House member that he wanted to keep in office. Bill Clinton fired one. But it's really very rare for this to happen.

In this case it was eight attorneys.

That is close to unprecedented. ... I did a book on the Justice Department, and I just have never seen something like this.

Now, that being said, when a president comes into office, historically, all the U.S. attorneys leave. And he appoints a new set of these individuals — there are about 90 of them. And... they are sort of in charge of federal enforcement in each of these districts. And they can be very powerful and influential in deciding which cases are prosecuted and which kinds of cases are not.

What seems odd to the outside observer is that these attorneys were Bush administration appointees, and they were fired mid-term.

It's very odd. And what makes it even odder is that with the data we have, you can see that the U.S. attorney in San Diego [Carol Lam] was not following the party line. Immigration enforcement went down, weapons enforcement went down, and she's fired. The U.S. attorney in Seattle [John McKay] appears to have been following the party line and he's fired — so what the criteria were for these firings is murky.

Why are U.S. attorney posts important enough for the White House, the media and Congress to be so focused on who holds these jobs and, in this case, who has been fired from these jobs?

U.S. attorneys ... many times head the federal enforcement effort in each of the districts. The U.S. attorneys have the right to decline any recommendation for prosecution by the investigative agencies. And they do — substantial numbers of them.

The power is considerable. This is a very political job and U.S. attorneys often go from being a U.S. attorney to running for senator or, you know, mayor or governor and that kind of thing.

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