As President Obama fills positions in the federal government, he might want to approach the 93 U.S. attorneys' offices with extra caution.
The past two presidents have created controversies surrounding their handling of U.S. attorney appointments and dismissals. Now Democrats in the White House and Congress have begun to discuss who will occupy those important positions in the Obama administration.
Each new president traditionally replaces his predecessor's U.S. attorneys with new appointees. Obama has not yet nominated anyone. But according to sources close to the process, administration staffers have solicited recommendations from some members of Congress about who the new U.S. attorneys will be.
Those recommendations primarily come from the senior Democratic senator in each state. In states where both senators are Republicans, the administration is working with the state's most senior Democrat in the House.
In early January, the Justice Department asked all of President Bush's U.S. attorneys to remain in their posts until further notice. Not all of them chose to stay. There has been a steady exodus over the past several months, as is typical at the end of an administration.
According to the Justice Department, by the time President Obama was inaugurated, only 54 of the 93 U.S. attorneys were Senate-confirmed appointees. The rest were a mix of acting officials and interim appointees.
The U.S. attorney post is a plum job. U.S. attorneys are the chief federal law enforcement officials in their part of the country, like a local attorney general. They have wide discretion to bring prosecutions in every area of the law, from white-collar crime to terrorism. Although the positions often go to the president's political allies, the job is supposed to be nonpartisan. That is where President Bush encountered trouble.
A report last year by the Justice Department's inspector general found "substantial evidence that partisan political considerations" had played a role in the Bush administration's decision to fire a group of U.S. attorneys. Those firings sparked a massive scandal. More than a dozen top Justice Department officials eventually resigned, including Attorney General Alberto Gonzales.
President Clinton created a smaller controversy of his own with U.S. attorneys, firing all of them on one day in 1993. That move brought criticism from Republicans in Congress.
President Obama appears to be moving more cautiously. He has already announced his intention to retain at least one of President Bush's U.S. attorneys, Patrick Fitzgerald. Fitzgerald is the chief prosecutor in Chicago. He won a conviction against Vice President Dick Cheney's chief of staff, Lewis "Scooter" Libby, and he is currently leading the charge against Illinois Gov. Rod Blagojevich.
Other U.S. attorneys from the Bush administration appear to be having a difficult time finding jobs in the private sector. This is extremely unusual; former U.S. attorneys typically land top jobs at private law firms without a problem. But during this economic crisis, law firms have been laying off attorneys across the country. As a result, according to people in the U.S. attorney community, even some high-profile prosecutors in major cities have had no luck in their search for the next job.