When Justice Is Too Political


Last week Janet Reno, the brand-new attorney general, ordered all 77 holdover U.S. attorneys to submit their resignations. This was an embarrassment for her and the Department of Justice, because it was perfectly clear that she was carrying out White House orders. So much for her promised independence. The operation was also inept. Some U.S. attorneys got the word by phone moments before Ms. Reno announced the decision at a press conference. Some U.S. attorneys got the word from the press conference.

This episode prompts second thoughts by those who, like us, had hoped the Clinton administration would recognize that after 12 years of bumbling and politicized leadership the Justice Department needed more than anything else an attorney general who is competent and above petty politics.

When the White House changes hands from one political party to another, U.S. attorneys are always replaced. But not with such haste. In Maryland, for example, the last three times a new party took over the White House the old U.S. attorney remained in office for half a year on one occasion, a year on another and a year and a half on the third.

So what's the rush now? It obviously is not a management decision. This administration has yet to nominate a deputy attorney general or an associate attorney general or any assistant attorney generals or a solicitor general. To start vigorous replacement efforts at the lower levels while so many big offices are still empty is absurd.

Critics accuse the new administration of trying to sabotage the U.S. attorney in Washington, Jay Stephens. He was said to be close to deciding on whether to indict a leading congressional Democrat, Rep. Dan Rostenkowski. This sounds like obstruction of justice, but the U.S. attorney for Maryland, Richard Bennett, a Republican, told an audience in Ocean Pines last week that he regarded what happened not an indication of unethical behavior by Ms. Reno but a "p.r. gaffe." Probably, but that's no small thing, either: The appearance of non-political justice is important.

Sometimes things backfire. If Mr. Stephens is ousted before his investigation is completed or he is forced to complete the investigation before it is "ripe," many skeptics will never accept Mr. Rostenkowski's innocence.

In that regard, Mr. Bennett's office has begun preliminary investigations with possible political overtones involving a controversial lottery computer contract and allegations against the Baltimore City Police Department. Surely his replacement, presumed to be Lynne Battaglia, now of Sen. Barbara Mikulski's staff, will be sensitive to "p.r." as well as ethical concerns.

We expect that she will let career prosecutors go forward with these investigations as long as, in their professional judgment, there is a possibility of violations of the law.

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