March 20, 2007

FLOOR STATEMENT ON S. 214, U.S. ATTORNEYS APPOINTMENT AUTHORITY

Mr. President, I rise in support of S. 214, the Preserving United States Attorney Independence Act of 2007.

I am greatly troubled by the recent disclosure in the newspapers and to the Senate Judiciary Committee, on which I serve, that the Justice Department may well have politicized the hiring and firing of U.S. Attorneys, in an effort to interfere with pending public corruption cases.

On March 6th we heard powerful testimony in the Committee from highly-regarded former U.S. Attorneys who felt intimidated and pressured by members of Congress and high-level Justice Department officials.

In the hearing I raised the question of the morale of U.S. Attorneys, and how such political interference in their cases has a detrimental effect on the functioning of their office. It is a real concern that we must keep in mind during this debate.

I am outraged by the potential abuses that may have occurred in the White House or Justice Department at the direction of political appointees such as Harriet Myers, Karl Rove, or Kyle Sampson. The Congressional ethics committees should also investigate whether Members of Congress put improper pressure or influence on U.S. Attorneys to pursue certain public corruption cases based on the party affiliation of the target of the investigation.

Last week, I was pleased to vote in favor of subpoenas in the Judiciary Committee so that our committee can begin a formal investigation of this very serious matter. The Committee must aggressively investigate these firings and receive the necessary information from the White House Counsel's office and the Justice Department. We must demand accountability for any improper actions that were taken, and I look forward to an exhaustive inquiry and investigation of any U.S. Attorney whose dismissal may have compromised the needed independence of the U.S. Attorney's office in conducting investigations.

We need to get the facts out so that the Senate Judiciary Committee and the American people know what really happened to these U.S. Attorneys. What were the real motivations for these firings, and who in the Administration directed the firings?

The independence of U.S. Attorneys in our system is absolutely critical. U.S. Attorneys have enormous power and discretion whether to investigate and prosecute individuals, or alternatively to clear an individual, offer immunity, or recommend a lighter sentence. They are the chief federal law officers in the States. They uphold the rule of law, and are supposed to operate outside of political considerations, just as we expect judges to do.

In many cases we know that the fired U.S. Attorneys received excellent performance review ratings from the Justice Department. Therefore, I am not satisfied with the Attorney General's explanations on this issue or the firing of his chief of staff. Even the President acknowledges that mistakes have been made, but we need to hold senior officials accountable who acted improperly and who designed, planned, and carried out this strategy.

Either the Attorney General knew about the actions of his subordinates and allowed them to continue, or the Attorney General had no knowledge and was not properly supervising his employees. In either case, the Attorney General has made a grave error in judgment.

In the Judiciary Committee we have worked hard to reach a compromise version of this legislation, which the Ranking Member - the senior Senator from Pennsylvania - supports.

Until 1986, interim U.S. Attorneys were appointed by their respective district courts and were allowed to serve until the vacancy was filled by a U.S. Attorney nominated by the President and confirmed by the President.

When Congress reauthorized the USA PATRIOT Act last year, a provision was included that modified the statute that determines how long interim appointments are made for vacant U.S. Attorneys. The USA PATRIOT Act Reauthorization changed the law to allow interim appointments to serve indefinitely rather than for a limited 120 days. Under current law, therefore, the Attorney General can nominate someone who can take office without any confirmation hearing by the Senate, and may serve as U.S. Attorney for the remainder of the President's term in office. This is a way, simply stated, of avoiding a Senate confirmation of a U.S. Attorney.

The legislation we are considering today, S. 214, would reinstate the process that existed prior to the PATRIOT Act change in 2006. By having the district court make the appointments, and not the Attorney General, the process provides an incentive for the Administration to move quickly to appoint a replacement and to work in cooperation with the Senate to get the best qualified candidate confirmed.

Given the recent revelations of the Administration's efforts to bypass the Senate confirmation process, we should quickly enact this legislation as a first step in restoring the proper balance of power between the executive, legislative, and judicial branches.