Where the Spoils System Works for the Best

Once again the torch has been passed. We have a new United States attorney. Ten days ago, Lynne Anne Battaglia took the oath of office and became Maryland's chief federal prosecutor.

This has been a political transition. Ms. Battaglia is a Democrat. She replaces Richard D. Bennett, an able and experienced lawyer who has lost his job as U.S. Attorney for only one reason: He is a Republican. If this sounds unfair, remember that if he had not been a Republican, the prior Republican administration would never have appointed him in the first place.


All over the country, these political transitions occur in U.S. attorneys' offices whenever the Democrats take the White House away from the Republicans or vice versa. In recent history, it happened after the presidential elections in 1960, 1968, 1976 and 1981. Now it has happened again.

In our state, as elsewhere, this important and powerful position has always been a political appointment. May it always remain one.


Ironically, one of the great strengths of federal law enforcement is rooted in political patronage. U.S. attorneys are nominated by the president. But they must be confirmed by the U.S. Senate. Historically, senators have used that confirmation power to make the actual selection of U.S. attorneys one of their own political prerogatives.

This system may sound terrible, but it has actually worked very well. It has not injected partisan politics into criminal investigations and prosecutions. Nor has it politicized the selection of assistant federal prosecutors.

What this political selection system has done is make U.S. attorneys independent and freed them from the deadening timidity of governmental careerism. As a result, the Justice Department is the most decentralized and, therefore, the boldest and most energized of all federal agencies.

Of course U.S. attorneys take orders from the attorney general and must follow Justice Department rules and regulations. But they are not career prosecutors. They are not moving up a bureaucratic ladder, one cautious step at a time. Their superiors in the Justice Department do not have the power to promote or fire them. In fact, most U.S. attorneys do not aspire to a position in the departmental hierarchy in Washington.

Instead, most of them come from private law practices to which they eventually want to return. In the meantime, they can aggressively pursue wrongdoing without fear that ruffling bureaucratic feathers will damage their careers. For most of them, the worst that can happen is that at the end of their terms, they will resign and go back to making money.

Since U.S. attorneys are virtually their own bosses, however, their political selection imposes special obligations on the politicians who pick them. This political selection system will only work if a state's U.S. senators operate it with integrity.

Maryland's Senators -- Democrats and Republicans alike -- have fulfilled that obligation for as long as most of us can remember. In choosing Ms. Battaglia, Senators Paul S. Sarbanes and Barbara A. Mikulski have not only disdained political hacks. They have selected someone whose talents, experience, credentials, character and accomplishments should have recommended her for this job under any fair selection process, no matter how non-partisan and non-political.

Ms. Battaglia is an outstanding lawyer. She has prosecuted federal criminal tax cases all over the country. She headed the Maryland attorney general's criminal investigations division. She teaches at the University of Maryland law school.


Most important, she served four years as an assistant U.S. attorney in Maryland. This should be an essential qualification for the job. It's a large office. Sixty assistant federal prosecutors handle thousands of criminal and civil cases in two courthouses. The office exercises enormous power. It can be used to do good. But if misapplied, it can cause damage.

Prior service as an assistant in the office gives U.S. attorneys the knowledge and the experience they will need to control and direct all of that activity.

Ms. Battaglia is only one of a large and growing cadre of women who have served as assistant U.S. attorneys in this state. Back in the 1960s, Jean Rogers became the first. For years she served alone. But when Ms. Battaglia came into the office as an assistant prosecutor in 1978, she joined a band of other new women prosecutors who together blazed a trail in federal law enforcement in this state.

Catherine C. Blake, Gale E. Rasin, Marsha A. Ostrer, Elizabeth H. Trimble, Jane W. Moscowitz, Barbara S. Sale, Ellen L. Hollander, and Glenda G. Gordon. They have now been followed by many others.

Ms. Battaglia now becomes the first woman to be selected by our senators and appointed U.S. attorney by the president. She won't be the last.

The time is coming -- and coming soon -- when there won't be anything unusual about a female U.S. attorney in Maryland. It won't be long before some other woman will take office and little attention will be paid to her gender because she will be the fifth or the sixth or the tenth woman to hold this position.


When that day comes, our senators should still select our U.S. attorneys. The women and men who take the oath should be drawn from former assistant federal prosecutors in this state who have gone on to gain experience and credentials outside the office. During their terms as U.S. attorney, they can exercise the independence which that process affords them and which has traditionally characterized this great Maryland institution.

Tim Baker's column appears on alternate Mondays. He served as U.S. attorney for Maryland from 1978 to 1981.