Opening Argument – Are the Democrats Serious?

National Journal

So far, at least, both sides deserve to lose the brewing battle over congressional Democrats’ subpoenas for information about White House deliberations on the firings of nine U.S. attorneys.

The administration deserves to lose because the contradictory, misleading, and sometimes false congressional testimonies of Attorney General Alberto Gonzales and other officials about the firings (among other matters) have the smell of cover-up about them. Their evasions have given a tincture of plausibility to what initially seemed to be far-fetched suspicions that the firings were driven by an administration scheme to abuse its prosecutorial powers to hurt Democratic candidates. This is not the best time for the compulsively secretive George W. Bush to hide behind the same executive privilege that the Watergate cover-up made famous, while implausibly claiming to be doing it for the benefit of future presidents.

"Presidents who really care about executive privilege and secrecy don’t make the claims about confidentiality and evading legal rules wantonly and libidinously," asserts Neal Katyal, a Georgetown law professor who served in the Clinton Justice Department and later criticized President Clinton for misusing executive privilege to shield himself.

The congressional Democrats deserve to lose because they have so far made no serious proposal to pass new legislation or to do anything else-besides beat their chests in righteous rage-that shows a genuine need for whatever information they might obtain about the firings by demanding White House documents and the testimony of former White House Counsel Harriet Miers and political aide Sara Taylor.

But the Democrats could change this equation by showing that their subpoenas have a legislative goal that transcends embarrassing President Bush.

Opening Argument – Choosing the Next Attorney General

National Journal

This is not a prediction that Alberto Gonzales will be driven from office because of the incompetence and untruthfulness recently manifested by the botched firings of eight U.S. attorneys and the multiple misleading and inconsistent explanations thereof. Even if President Bush’s buddy hangs on until 2009, the Senate should henceforth reject any attorney general nominee whose only outstanding qualification is his or her relationship with the president. Democrats who want to run Gonzales out of town should also pledge that they will never again support a nominee of either party who is as ill-qualified as Gonzales is or — for that matter — as Robert F. Kennedy was in 1961.

Hindsight shows that RFK turned out to be a pretty good AG in many ways. (Approving FBI wiretaps of Martin Luther King Jr. was not among his better ideas.) But as of 1961, his main qualification was that he was the president’s brother.

The Justice Department, which employs 110,000 people, is entrusted with advising the president and other federal officials on the limits of their powers; safeguarding our civil liberties; evenhandedly enforcing laws on terrorism, national security, civil rights, the environment, white-collar crime, antitrust, and narcotics; choosing judges; and running the FBI and the federal prison system.

Its prosecutors have "more control over life, liberty, and reputation than any other person in America," as then-Attorney General (and later Justice) Robert Jackson said in a famous 1940 speech to an assembly of U.S. attorneys.