Op-Ed article from the May 3, 2007 issue of The New York Times:
AS a former Justice Department official, I have been inundated lately with questions from friends, family and acquaintances about Attorney General Alberto Gonzales. Should he stay or should he go? To some extent, I think that’s the wrong question.
As for the current matter, involving the dismissal of several United States attorneys, the fact is that the president is entitled to fire the people in those jobs without cause. As far as we know, no crime has been committed. Mr. Gonzales is being accused not of criminal conduct but of ineptitude. But the issue raised by this highly unfortunate set of circumstances transcends the question of the present attorney general’s tenure.
There is no doubt that the confidence of the American public in the ability of the department to administer justice evenhandedly has been badly shaken, and the morale at the department has been significantly eroded. Why? Because the overall perception, right or wrong, is that the department is highly political and that when Mr. Gonzales left his job at 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue to become attorney general at 10th and Constitution, he did not appreciate that he had truly changed jobs.
Whatever happens to Mr. Gonzales, the taint will remain. That’s why the only real solution is to depoliticize the Justice Department, to do away with the appearance of anyone playing politics there.
I suggest we begin by making the attorney general job no longer a cabinet position. When the nation was established, the president needed a lawyer at his side. But today the president has a White House staff full of them — a veritable law firm in his own home.
The solution is to have the attorney general appointed to a fixed term — say, 15 years — that wouldn’t be coterminous with the tenure of the president who appoints him. As with the director of the F.B.I. (a 10-year term) and the chairman of the Federal Reserve (a four-year, renewable term), the appointment would be made by the president with the advice and consent of the Senate. Congress’s oversight would ensure that no political hack or crony of the president could be handed the job.
Likewise, the 93 United States attorneys should not be political apparatchiks, but talented lawyers selected half from Republican ranks and half from Democratic, following the system used for regulatory bodies like the Federal Communications Commission. These men and women should also be subject to Senate confirmation.
Changes in the occupant of the White House should not affect the way justice is administered. If the Gonzales mess ends up giving us an apolitical Department of Justice, the American people will be well served.