About those fired U.S. Attorneys

The alleged scandal over the firing of eight U.S. Attorneys has made it to the front page of the Washington Post as today’s top headline. Let’s take a look at the Post’s story and the “scandal.”
The Post breathlessly informs us that the “Firings Had Genesis in White House.” Reading on, we learn that President Bush told Attorney General Gonzales he had received complaints that some prosecutors had not energetically pursued voter-fraud invesitgations. Voter fraud is a serious offense, and both political parties say they oppose it. So it seems perfectly proper for the president to pass along a complaint that some prosecutors weren’t pursuing such investigations. The question would then become how Gonzales followed-up and whether he did so fairly. More on this in a moment.
The Post also says that Harriet Miers recommended that all U.S. Attorneys be fired. Gonzales wisely rejected this blunderbuss recommendation. It’s worth noting, though, that such a mass firing would not have been unprecedented. President Clinton, through Janet Reno, fired all of the U.S. Attorneys after he was elected. Clinton used the mass firing as a means of covering up his real intention — to fire the U.S. Attorney in his home state of Arkansas. They didn’t call Clinton “Slick Willie” for nothing.
This time, eight prosecutors lost their jobs. It’s not implausible to think that out of 93 U.S. Attorneys, eight might be good candidates for replacement. But let’s take a quick look at some of the specifics. According to the Post, three of them had low ratings — Margaret Chiara in Michigan, Carol Lam in San Diego, and Bud Cummins in Little Rock. Cummins was replaced by Tim Griffin, whose career Karl Rove apparently wanted to advance. There’s nothing novel in appointing a rising star with good connections to the job of U.S. Attorney. I’ve seen no evidence that Griffin was unqualified and, as noted, Cummins had received a poor rating.
Two of the fired prosecutors — Kevin Ryan in San Francisco and David Iglesias in Albuquerque — received strong evaluations. But according to the Post, Ryan’s firing “has generated few complaints because of widespread managment and morale problems in his office.”
The focus instead is on Iglesias because, in addition to the strong evaluation, he was not on the original list of prosecutors recommended for removal by Gonzales’ aide Kyle Sampson. Rather, he apparently was added as a candidate for removal in response to complaints from New Mexico Senator Pete Domenici and other New Mexico Republicans that he was not prosecuting enough voter-fraud cases.
Is the firing of Iglesias a genuine scandal? As David Frum notes, it depends on the facts: was there a serious problem of voter fraud in the state, was Iglesias sluggish in dealing with it, and did the administration act even-handedly by insisting that its U.S. Attorneys adequately deal with serious allegations of voter fraud lodged by both political parties?
Until we see good evidence that the answer to one or more of these questions is “no,” the firing of Iglesias is not scandalous.
UPDATE: Jeralyn Merritt, a liberal blogger and criminal lawyer whose work I respect, argues that

The travesty of the current U.S. Attorney firing scandal is not that U.S. Attorneys are being replaced. That is expected after an election, such as the one in 2004. It’s that it’s happening in 2007. . .In 2007, there should be no replacements, except for any U.S. Attorneys who proved to be unqualified.

But Merritt doesn’t really explain why this is so. She agrees that U.S. Attorneys “serve at the pleasure of the President.” So why shouldn’t a U.S. Attorney be replaced at any time if he or she is not performing well overall, or if his office is plagued by morale problems, or if she is not enforcing the immigration laws, or if he is not dealing adequately with substantial allegations of voter fraud? That’s the way it works for all other presidential appointees; why not U.S. Attorneys?
The issue should be the merits of the individual decisions, not the violation of some presumption that U.S. Attorneys will only be removed at a designated point in the political cycle.
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