LINDA WORTHEIMER, host:
As President Obama fills jobs across the federal government, there are several positions he may want to handle with extra caution: the 93 U.S. attorney's offices across the country. President Bush created a political scandal by firing a group of U.S. attorneys all on one day, apparently for partisan reasons. NPR's Ari Shapiro joins us now to talk about how the Obama administration is approaching these appointments. First of all, just tell us why the U.S. attorneys are so important.
ARI SHAPIRO: Well, if you think of the Justice Department as an octopus, the U.S. attorney's offices are the 93 tentacles all across the country. So they have enormous power. Each U.S. attorney is like a local attorney general, the chief federal law-enforcement official. And they can indict people for anything, from environmental crimes to terrorism charges. These are considered plum political posts, but once you get the post, you're supposed to be nonpartisan in your enforcement of the law.
WORTHEIMER: Now, the last two presidents tripped up a bit on appointing U.S. attorneys.
SHAPIRO: That's right. It's traditional for each president to replace all of the former president's U.S. attorneys. When President Clinton took office, he fired all of the first President Bush's U.S. attorney's in one day, which angered some Republicans in Congress. But that pales in comparison to the scandal that the most recent President Bush created when he fired a handful of U.S. attorneys after he was re-elected; this was January of 2005.
And the problem was, it looked as though he was firing people who were not partisan enough in their enforcement of the law. The inspector general for the Justice Department investigated this and in fact, concluded that there was substantial evidence that partisan political considerations played a role in the firings. And this scandal led to about a dozen resignations at the top levels of the Justice Department, including the attorney general himself, Alberto Gonzales.
WORTHEIMER: So what has President Obama done so far?
SHAPIRO: Well basically, he has learned from his predecessors' mistakes. He has not appointed any new U.S. attorneys yet, but the conversations have already begun. In early January, an email went out to all of the U.S. attorneys currently serving, asking them to stay in their jobs until further notice.
WORTHEIMER: These are Bush appointees?
SHAPIRO: Exactly. Although even then, there were not 93 Bush-appointed U.S. attorneys in office. They had been resigning in large numbers, sort of seeing the writing on the wall of the last few months. And at this point, according to the Justice Department's numbers, 54 of the 93 U.S. attorneys across the country are Bush-appointed, Senate-confirmed. The rest are acting, interim, temporary people filling in on the job.
WORTHEIMER: And how does President Obama then plan to fill the jobs? How does he choose?
SHAPIRO: Well, according to sources close to the process, the administration has already been talking with the senior Democratic senators in various states about who they would recommend. If there's no Democratic senator, they're talking with the most senior member of the House. And then there are a few positions that are kind of in a category of their own. There's Chicago, Los Angeles, New York, Miami. People are going to be fighting over who gets those very, very high-profile positions.
WORTHEIMER: Right now, the most famous one's probably Chicago's U.S. attorney, Patrick Fitzgerald.
SHAPIRO: That's right.
WORTHEIMER: He's the fellow that prosecuted Scooter Libby.
SHAPIRO: The vice president's chief of staff, and he's currently leading the charge against Illinois Governor Rob Blagojevich. Senator Dick Durbin of Illinois and President Obama have said they plan to keep Patrick Fitzgerald on in Chicago. But there probably won't be many beyond that. Probably, almost all the 93 are going to be replaced with Mr. Obama's people.
WORTHEIMER: So where do the Bush-appointed attorneys go?
SHAPIRO: Well, this is the odd thing. Typically, a U.S. attorney can choose his or her job in the private sector.
WORTHEIMER: Especially if they stay in the state where they served.
SHAPIRO: Exactly. But right now, people in the U.S. attorney community tell me that even U.S. attorneys in major cities are having real trouble finding jobs. Even a year ago, this would have been unheard of. But because the economy is affecting every sector, including the legal market, people who are U.S. attorneys from major cities simply cannot find work. And from what I hear, this has less to do with ideology and more just to do with the state of the economy and the impact it's having on the legal market.
WORTHEIMER: NPR justice correspondent Ari Shapiro. Ari, thank you very much.
SHAPIRO: Good to talk to you.