WASHINGTON -- Maryland Democrats urged President Bush yesterday to nominate a candidate for attorney general who would restore public faith in a Justice Department that they said had become politicized under Alberto R. Gonzales.
"He was operating the Department of Justice as a political arm of the White House," said Sen. Benjamin L. Cardin, a member of the Senate Judiciary Committee. "In the confirmation hearings, I think that's going to be the critical point: whether we can return the Department of Justice to its proud history of being a nonpartisan agency that enforces the laws equally for all people in this country."
Cardin and others encouraged Bush to act quickly to nominate a replacement.
"This is an opportunity for the administration to send a signal that they understand that the country was ill-served by an overly partisan and political Department of Justice," said Rep. Chris Van Hollen, a Montgomery County Democrat.
Some Republicans sought to cast Gonzales, still facing questions about the firings of several U.S. attorneys, as a victim of politics.
"It is my hope that whomever President Bush selects as the next attorney general, he or she is not subjected to the same poisonous partisanship that we've sadly grown accustomed to over the past eight months," Senate Republican Leader Mitch McConnell of Kentucky said in a statement.
U.S. Attorney Rod J. Rosenstein, the top Justice Department official in Maryland, said day-to-day operations in the state "really have not been affected by any of the controversy in Washington."
"Obviously, the recent controversy has had an adverse effect on morale throughout the department," Rosenstein said. "But the Justice Department is a large and very resilient institution, with a lot of internal checks and balances, and I think that this episode will pass very quickly."
Stephen H. Sachs, a former U.S. attorney for Maryland, spoke of a need to restore not only the confidence of the public, but also the "sense of purpose" of the Justice Department staff.
"It seems to me that it's inevitable that to have an attorney general who was so compromised as a political gofer, that has to have a demoralizing effect on the professionals in the department," Sachs said.
"What the president ought to do, and I think this would be both good politics as well as good government, he ought to reach for someone who is not seen as his close ally or servant."
Rep. John Sarbanes said the choice of a successor takes on greater significance with the passage of legislation this month that expanded the attorney general's power to authorize spy operations without judicial oversight.
"It makes me that much more interested in making sure that the person charged with implementing [the new law] is somebody who's going to bring their own sense of what's balanced and fair and what the proper boundaries ought to be," the Baltimore County Democrat said.
Cardin said he would use the confirmation process to put the nominee "on the record as to the types of remedial programs or remedial action that that person will take in order to restore the department."