Sen Edward Kennedy
As John Adams wrote in the Massachusetts Constitution over two centuries ago, our new democracy was established "to the end it be a government of laws and not of men." We can survive poor decisions and misguided — even criminal — actions by our leaders. But our democracy itself is at risk if the Department of Justice distorts the law for partisan advantage.
The Department of Justice is not an arm of the Republican National Committee. "Of all the officers of the government, those of the Department of Justice should be kept most free from any suspicion of improper action on partisan grounds," wrote President Theodore Roosevelt in a letter to his attorney general, William H. Moody, and those words are equally true today.
The Department of Justice has a long and proud tradition, under both Republican and Democratic administrations, of keeping legal judgments free from the taint of politics. Yet the Bush administration has nothing but contempt for that tradition. This failure was expressed last week by former Department of Justice chief of staff Kyle Sampson when he testified before the Judiciary Committee that "a U.S. attorney who is unsuccessful from a political perspective ... is unsuccessful."
In the current U.S. attorney scandal, evidence is mounting that the federal prosecutors were dismissed for failing to bend their legal decisions to the political will of the White House. U.S. Attorney Carol Lam of California was fired after the attorney general's chief of staff wrote that she was a "real problem" _ one day after she had notified the department of additional search warrants in a Republican bribery scandal.
U.S. Attorney David Iglesias of New Mexico was fired after refusing to indict Democrats before last November's election. U.S. Attorney John McKay of Washington was fired after he incurred the displeasure of Republican partisans urging him to charge Democrats with voter fraud, even though he and the local FBI found no merit in the allegations.
But the larger significance of the U.S. attorneys scandal is that it provides a window into the politicization of the Department of Justice. This politicization has threatened far more than the careers of eight prosecutors. It has reached to the very heart of our democracy — the right to vote.
The Department's Civil Rights Division has all but stopped enforcing the law against those who prevent blacks from voting. Since President Bush took office, the department has filed only one voting rights case involving racial discrimination against blacks. But the political appointees in the Department's Civil Rights Division found time to approve Tom DeLay's Texas redistricting plan — over the unanimous objection of career attorneys in the division that the plan discriminated against Latinos. That plan was quickly struck down by the Supreme Court.
The political appointees also overrode the career professionals and approved a Georgia photo identification requirement for voting that clearly discriminated against minority voters. That requirement was later blocked by a federal District Court because it was tantamount to a modern poll tax.
Just as we are seeing in the unfolding scandal, these decisions were made by inexperienced lawyers who lack the independent judgment, maturity and commitment to equal justice that must be the hallmarks of the Department of Justice. Indeed, the two political appointees most responsible for turning the Civil Rights Division into an arm of the Republican Party were rewarded by the Bush administration with appointments as U.S. attorneys.
Attorneys with relatively little litigation experience but strong partisan credentials have been placed in U.S. attorney positions in states likely to be vital in the 2008 election, such as Florida, Iowa, Minnesota and Arkansas, to name a few. U.S. attorneys John McKay and David Iglesias were removed in battleground states because of their unwillingness to pursue meritless voter fraud allegations, while Tim Griffin, a protege of Karl Rove, was sent to Arkansas. There is strong evidence that the administration methodically placed reliable partisans in positions where they could influence the outcome of the 2008 election.
The Bush administration has rejected the fundamental principle that politics must end where the law begins. What is different about the U.S. attorney scandal is that unlike the Republican Congress of the past, the current Democratic Congress is unwilling to look the other way when such abuses occur. The U.S. attorney scandal will ultimately matter most because it summoned Congress to force the Department of Justice to return to our cherished heritage of "a government of laws, not men."
ABOUT THE WRITER
Sen. Edward M. Kennedy is the senior member of the Senate Judiciary Committee. Readers may write to him at: 317 Russell Building, U.S. Senate, Washington, D.C. 20510; Web site: www.kennedy.senate.gov.
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(c) 2007, Distributed by McClatchy-Tribune Information Services