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'Quite Unprecedented'

Former U.S. Attorney Mary Jo White explains why the firing of eight federal prosecutors could threaten the historic independence of federal law-enforcement officials.

House Judiciary Committee Holds Hearing On Fired US Attorneys
Chip Somodevilla / Getty Images
Six of the fired U.S. attorneys testified before the House Judiciary Committee on March 6

By Julie Scelfo
Updated: 11:14 a.m. ET March 15, 2007

March 15, 2007 - Attorney General Alberto Gonzales resisted new calls for his resignation Wednesday over the growing scandal about the dismissal of eight U.S. attorneys. To understand why these firings have become such a politically charged issue, NEWSWEEK’s Julie Scelfo spoke with Mary Jo White, former U.S. Attorney for the Southern District of New York, who was appointed by President Clinton and served for nearly nine years, even staying on for 10 months after President Bush took office and ordered three other New York federal prosecutors to step down. White, who earned national prominence for the successful prosecutions of numerous terrorism and white-collar cases, is now a partner at Debevoise & Plimpton in New York. [Editor’s note: Scelfo’s spouse worked for White from 1998-2002.] Excerpts:

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NEWSWEEK: What are U.S. attorneys and what do they do?
Mary Jo White: There are 93 U.S. attorneys that serve [geographical] judicial districts throughout the country. All are appointed by the president and subject to confirmation by the Senate and each one is chief federal law-enforcement officer of their respective districts. They’re charged with enforcing the federal laws, criminal and civil, in their district.

Does each prosecutor choose which cases to pursue?
U.S. attorneys have, and I believe rightly so, a great deal of discretion in terms of which cases to pursue and which not to pursue. They are subject to the general oversight of the Department of Justice. But within that structure, each U.S. attorney has a tremendous amount of discretion. That doesn’t mean they can decide not to enforce a law because they don’t like it. But basically they’re the chief federal law-enforcement officer for each district.

How long do U.S. attorneys usually serve?
Typically, the U.S. attorneys are appointed [by the president] for one four-year term and, assuming the political party doesn’t change, they are rolled over to serve out the remainder of the president’s term [if he is re-elected]. Obviously, some leave for their own personal reasons at some point in time. But essentially, even though they serve at the pleasure of the president, they typically, if they wish to, serve out the full term of the president.

Tim Roske / AP
‘What’s happened here, in my experience and to my knowledge, is quite unprecedented’

President Bush’s defenders have been asking why there’s such a fuss when even President Clinton removed all 93 U.S. attorneys in the early days of his administration.
Essentially, all U.S. attorneys, as political appointees, are expected to be replaced when the party changes. Although I think President Clinton made those changes too abruptly for an orderly transition, replacing political appointees is part of the normal political process when the party of the president changes. It is an entirely different matter when replacement of the U.S. attorneys are made during the same administration.

So it’s atypical to be replaced in the middle of a president’s term?
It’s quite atypical, absent some misconduct or other quite significant cause. What’s happened here, in my experience and to my knowledge, is quite unprecedented. And, if it turns out to be the case that some of the U.S. attorneys may have been removed for reasons of not bringing, or not bringing fast enough, politically charged cases, or they weren’t “loyal” to the president, then it becomes very, very disturbing. They should not, in my view, be removed lightly, and never for a political reason. Again I caution, though, that facts are coming out every day.

Recently released documents show a great deal of correspondence between the White House Counsel's office and Kyle Sampson, the Attorney General's chief of staff who resigned on Tuesday. Did you find it surprising the White House was so involved in the firings?
The whole series of events has been, in my judgment, highly unusual and completely unprecedented. Having said that, every U.S. attorney is subject to removal by the president. So at some point you would expect some White House involvement if indeed you were removing a presidentially appointed U.S. attorney.

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