Last week, U.S. Attorney General Jeff Sessions summarily fired all of the presidentially appointed U.S. attorneys who were holding over in their jobs. Having served as U.S. Attorney for Idaho in the Clinton administration and having worked for the Executive Office for U.S. Attorneys in the Obama administration, I have a few thoughts on this development.
The 94 U.S. attorneys — one for each federal district — are appointed by the president and confirmed by the U.S. Senate. Most people hear about the work of U.S. attorneys in the context of criminal prosecutions. U.S. Supreme Court Justice Sutherland once described the prosecutorial role of a United States attorney as follows:
“The United States attorney is the representative not of an ordinary party to a controversy, but of a sovereignty whose obligation to govern impartially is as compelling as its obligation to govern at all; and whose interest, therefore, in a criminal prosecution is not that it shall win a case, but that justice shall be done.”
Every U.S. attorney I’ve known has taken these words to heart. That has been true of U.S. attorneys appointed by both Democratic and Republican presidents.
But the U.S. attorney is not only the chief federal law enforcement officer for their district, he or she is also responsible for defending the U.S. against civil lawsuits. It’s a highly consequential job, one in which the U.S. attorney takes an oath to serve “without fear or favor.”
It is not unusual for a new president to ask for the resignation of all incumbent U.S. attorneys. Indeed, U.S. attorneys understand that, just as their appointment was political, their tenure will likely come to an end soon after a president of a different party takes office. It is unprecedented, however, for a president to demand all such holdover U.S. attorneys resign and leave office the same day. This needlessly draconian termination of incumbent U.S. attorneys was likely prompted by the president’s growing paranoia that a “deep state” of Obama appointees is covertly working to undermine his presidency.
When, after the election of George W. Bush, my tenure as U.S. attorney came to an end, my fellow U.S. attorneys and I were given a brief grace period in which to prepare for a smooth and seamless transition. I wanted my successor to succeed and for the dedicated staff and our client agencies to know that the important work of the office would proceed uninterrupted.
When President Barack Obama took office, he afforded a similar transition grace period to George W. Bush holdovers. From a country-first perspective, this approach makes good sense. Thus, the recent White House purge was not only disruptive, but revealing. It showed us a deeply insecure bully who imagines enemies where they do not exist, who — feeling impotent — resorts to tantrums. Somewhere, Richard Nixon is smiling, knowing he will soon be replaced as the Oval Office occupant who did the most to undermine our republic.
Betty Richardson, of Boise, was nominated by President Bill Clinton, unanimously confirmed by the U.S. Senate and served as the U.S. Attorney for the District of Idaho from 1993 to 2001.