Prepared Statement of the Hon. Stuart M. Gerson Regarding Preserving Prosecutorial Independence – United States Senate Committee on the JudiciaryFebruary 21, 2007
Mr. Chairman and distinguished members of the Senate Judiciary Committee. It is an honor for a former Justice Department senior official, one who began his legal career as a line Assistant United States Attorney, to be invited back to testify before this Committee on the subject of prosecutorial independence and whether the Department of Justice is unduly politicizing the hiring and firing of U.S. Attorneys.
This is not a new subject, either to this Committee or to me. Indeed, I understand that I have been invited to testify in significant measure because I have substantial direct experience dealing with the issue of the tenure of United States Attorneys in several different capacities during several different administrations.
Accordingly, I shall address the issue from a historical and constitutional perspective but from a practical standpoint as well. This duality of approach suggests several conclusions:
- Separation of powers concerns inform both the President's appointments authority and the Congress's oversight role with respect to the selection and retention of constitutional officers and "inferior" officers such as United States Attorneys. To the extent that "independence" is a virtue, and that is a term the vitality of which depends upon its definition, it derives from the President's Article II responsibility to "take care" that the law "be faithfully executed." Clearly both common sense and experience, especially recent history, involving the conduct of so-called Independent Counsels responsible to courts, punctuates the need for separating prosecutorial authority from judicial authority, even as to the issue at hand: filling vacancies caused by the resignation or dismissal of U.S. Attorneys. With respect to said vacancies, one must note that, pursuant to Article II, Congress has the power to assign at least some appointment responsibility to the judiciary, and has done so in the past. My argument, therefore, is addressed to congressional discretion, not its authority. The exercise of that discretion should be tempered by separation of powers concerns.
- The selection and retention process for United States Attorneys is, and always has been, a "political" matter both because these activities are properly partisan and because their conduct is best confined to the elected, political branches of government.
- S. 214, while understandably motivated and representative of a situation that might otherwise effectively be addressed, at least through congressional oversight, is misguided because the vacancy problems that it seeks to solve are neither unprecedented nor pervasive, and because the remedy offered, i.e., an exclusive judicial role in dealing with vacant United States Attorneys' positions, contradicts an appropriate executive function, is anomalous and unwelcome to the judiciary and, most importantly, will have the unintended effect of hampering the Senate's proper oversight role of executive functions.
- The "independence" that should be sought from United States Attorneys is independence of judgment in areas properly consigned to their areas of delegated authority. While that means that a United States Attorney must be free to prosecute wrongdoing, even on the part of the administration that has selected him or her, it does not mean that a United States Attorney must be politically independent of the President and Attorney General in regard to their legal agendas and in rendering appropriate legal advice. There are several checks that insure judgmental independence including congressional oversight and the presence of a capable and distinguished corps of career prosecutors in the various United States Attorneys' offices. In my direct experience, running from the Watergate prosecutions during the Nixon Administration in the 1970's to several matters of note during the Clinton Administration in the 1990's, if there has been any presidential abuse of the prosecutorial function, and that is questionable, it has had nothing to do with vacancies in U.S. Attorneys' offices and any problems were quickly and effectively addressed.
Under the Appointments Clause, Art. II, sec. 2, cl. 2, the President is vested with the responsibility of appointing all officers of the United States, subject to Senate confirmation. Art. II, sec. 3 describes the President's fundamental responsibility to "take care" that the laws of the nation "be faithfully executed."
In support of that function, Section 35 of Judiciary Act of 1789 provided for the appointment of an Attorney General who, among other things shall "give his advice and opinion upon questions of law when required by the President of the United States" or by the heads of the executive branch departments of the government. The same section also provided for the appointment of United States Attorneys:
And there shall be appointed in each district a meet person learned in the
law to act as attorney for the United States in such district, who shall be
sworn or affirmed to the faithful execution of his office, whose duty it
shall be to prosecute in such district all delinquents for crimes and
offences, cognizable under the authority of the United States, and all civil
actions in which the United States shall be concerned . . . .
Through 28 U.S.C. §§ 516 and 519, Congress has given the Attorney General supervisory authority over United States Attorneys, commanding that litigation on behalf of the United States be conducted "under the direction of the Attorney General." See United States v. Hilario, 218 F. 3d 19, 25 (1st Cir. 2000). Because United States Attorneys are supervised in significant part (though not completely) by the Attorney General, the case law suggests that they are "inferior" officers whose appointment constitutionally could be assigned by the Congress to a department head like the Attorney General or to a court. Id.; see Edmond v. United States, 520 U.S. 651, 659-60 (1997); compare Morrison v. Olson, 487 U.S. 654 (1988).
We are not concerned today with the nomination and confirmation of regular United States Attorneys but with the question of how interim United States Attorneys shall be selected (and how long they may serve) when the regular occupant of the office resigns or is terminated. From 1986 until approximately a year ago, the procedures for the appointment of interim U.S. Attorneys were set forth in a version of 28 U.S.C. § 546, which provided:
(c) A person appointed as United States attorney under this section may
serve under section 541 of this title; or
(1) the qualification of a United States attorney for such district
appointed by the President under section 541 of this title; or
(2) the expiration of 120 days after appointment by the Attorney
General under this section.
(d) If an appointment expires under subsection (c)(2), the district court for
such district may appoint a United States attorney to serve until the
vacancy is filled. . . .
On March 9, 2006, the Patriot Act Reauthorization Bill was signed into law by the President, and this law amended Section 546 of Title 28 by striking subsections (c) and (d), supra, and adding a new subsection (c), which provides that a person appointed as an interim U.S. Attorney "may serve until the qualification of a United States Attorney for such District appointed by the President under section 541 of this title." The Patriot Act Reauthorization thus struck the 120 day limit on the service of presidentially-appointed interim U.S. Attorneys and eliminated the courts from the process. Critics opined that this procedure effectively could extend the terms of interim U.S. Attorneys to the end of the term of the President that appoints them and circumvent the Senate's confirmation process..
However, the number of interim U.S. Attorneys appointed by the current administration is not uncharacteristically high and, except where such persons were not able to serve, virtually all of them had been First Assistant United States Attorneys or similar senior supervisory officials in their offices. In other words, they would appear to be qualified to serve in the office, are generally have career status, and are typical of the persons who have been selected as interim U.S. Attorneys in past administrations. And to the point of the confirmation process, it is my understanding that the current administration has pledged timely to nominate regular replacements where there have been vacancies and to assure that they are promptly subjected to the confirmation process.
Nevertheless, this Committee is considering S. 214, which would amend § 546 of Title 28, this time to eliminate the President from the vacancy filling process by repealing the section (c) that was included in the U.S. Patriot Act Reauthorization law and assigning exclusively to "The United States district court for a district in which the office of the United States attorney is vacant [the authority to] appoint a United States attorney to serve until that vacancy is filled."
One notes with irony that a criticism of the 2006 version of § 546 was that, by Executive Branch fiat, the confirmation process could be thwarted, and that a criticism of the S. 214 version of § 546 is that, by Legislative Branch fiat, the confirmation process could be thwarted. Rather that engage in that kind of hypothesizing, I respectfully suggest that the Committee focus on the fact that, in the American experience it is a constitutional anomaly to include prosecution as part of the judicial power. See Prakash, S. B., "The Chief Prosecutor," 73 Geo. Wash. L. Rev. 521 (2005). Where we have transgressed that principle, particularly in the case of court-empowered "independent" counsel, fair minded people of both parties have regretted it. Where other countries, particularly the Soviet bloc states, refused to separate the executive and judicial powers the result was disastrous.
In sum, though U.S. Attorneys are "inferior" officers, an interpretation that is embodied in all iterations of § 546, including the proposal of S. 214, and though an earlier version of § 546 had an alternative judicial appointment provision, it would be a mistake from a separation of powers standpoint to cut the Executive Branch out of the appointment process for interim United States Attorneys and, unless a compelling need for it were shown, it would seem unnecessary to restore the judiciary to the program, especially in view of evidence that the judiciary is not desirous of the role and has not used it efficaciously on all occasions in the past. I do believe, however, that, if the retention of § 546 as it currently is formulated is unsatisfactory to a majority of the Committee, that the restoration of the previous version is superior to S. 214.
When I was acting Attorney General in the first months of the Clinton Administration, a number of my conservative Republican erstwhile colleagues questioned how, on one hand, I could strongly recommend to the Democratic President in whose accidental service I found myself that he continue various Bush administration policies and initiatives implicating the Executive's war powers and foreign affairs powers, but on the other hand proceeded with a certain alacrity to assure that all Republican U.S. Attorney holdovers had to resign or be involuntarily replaced. The answer was a simple one: both hands were working to allow what Madison called an "energetic executive" to exercise his constitutional powers.
While many of the U.S. Attorneys that President Clinton was prepared to appoint, having begun to consult with the Senators from various states, hardly would represent my choices, he had the right, indeed the duty, to set up a legal mechanism to get the legal advice that he would need and position people to carry out his prosecutorial and litigation priorities throughout the country. And it was my obligation to set up a Justice Department that my confirmed successor might step into and direct, assured that the administration's legal affairs were in the hands of capable attorneys of its choice.
While my personal situation was historically unique, there was nothing at all novel about United States Attorneys being replaced for political reasons. The Reagan administration, for example, acted in its own interests much the same as the Clinton administration had in its when it sought the prompt removal of all U.S. Attorneys from the previous administration, notwithstanding the fact that most of the persons whose nominations were to be submitted had not been selected and many interim persons would be required. One indeed would expect that the next administration will do the same thing and will have every right to act politically as to a task that is properly political — calling for the execution of policy choices accepted by the majority who voted for the new President.
When in the early 1970's I was an Assistant United States Attorney in the District of Columbia, I litigated the first case involving the Watergate affair, thwarting an effort by a county district attorney to invade an area of federal prosecutorial prerogatives. Our office undertook a vigorous investigation that led to successful prosecutions and would have led to more, but for the appointment of a special prosecutor who supplanted the line prosecutors. In any event, one had good reason to believe that President Nixon was not at all happy with the energetic conduct of a United States Attorney that he appointed. A little earlier in my public career I prosecuted a sitting United States Senator whose case engendered vigorous comment and attempts to influence the course of litigation by certain of his colleagues. In these and other cases, and in many others in which my co-workers prosecuted, we enjoyed steadfast support from both our politically-appointed United States Attorney and from the senior career staff in the office and at Main Justice, people like the legendary Henry Peterson, who taught us that our job was to do justice, to prosecute the cases in which we found merit and to decline the cases that we believed should not be brought — and to do both irrespective of outside pressure. That ethic was and is pervasive throughout the Department and the traditionally great United States Attorneys' offices such as the District of Columbia, the Southern District of New York and most others.
But I say with respect that maintaining that ethic, as important as it is, is not contradicted by a President and an Attorney General making political decisions, often in consort with members of the Senate, as to the appointment of U.S. Attorneys and their evaluations and (infrequent) terminations as well. In fact, one might argue that there are areas where the Department does not exercise strong enough control upon United States Attorneys. I offer several examples of matters in which I have been involved to make this point.
By statute, regulation and custom, the oversight and authority exercised by the Civil Division of the Justice Department over United States Attorneys is considerably greater than that generally exercised in the criminal area. During the Savings & Loan debacle of the late '80's and early '90's, the Civil Division, which I headed at the time, with substantial input from our oversight committees on the Hill, was able to undertake a fairly extensive and successful litigation program in consort with Federal thrift regulatory authorities and the civil divisions of various U.S. Attorneys' offices. Until we set up task forces and working groups that sent lawyers and agents from Washington and elsewhere into to certain key districts, we were less successful on the criminal side, largely because some United States Attorneys did not think that pursuit of this kind of case should be a priority.
Several years later, an investigation produced substantial evidence that Salomon Brothers had misconducted itself in connection with the U.S. Treasury long bond market and that the impropriety was sponsored at the highest levels of the company. A United States Attorney and his senior staff were highly desirous of undertaking a massive prosecution under the securities laws a course of action that was not without legal merit but which also would have ended up depriving the company of most of its assets and employees and ultimately closing it down. That course had an analog in the earlier case of Drexel, Burnham. The Secretary of the Treasury, however, strongly believed that while the management of Salomon brothers had to be removed, sanctioned and replaced, an early settlement that would allow a restructured company to participate in the bond market, offering needed competition and financial stability, was greatly in the public interest. Ultimately this view prevailed, although the United States Attorney believed that his independence had been compromised.
During my service in the Clinton administration, I was presented with what I concluded was persuasive evidence that a United States Attorney and his staff had at least condoned racial discrimination in the selection of a jury about to sit in the trial of a nationally-known minority politician. While the prosecution was clearly in the public interest, discriminatory jury selection was not. I ordered the U.S. Attorney to confess error and, believing that I was interfering with his independence, he resigned. I immediately appointed a lawyer to serve as Interim U.S. Attorney whom I knew would carry out what I thought to be the policy that justice commanded and he did so.
In all three of these cases, the "independence" of United States Attorneys was severely limited; in all three, I suggest, justice was done.
The last of my examples is particularly instructive. The pursuit of what I thought was a just prosecutorial decision ended up causing a vacancy in a U.S. Attorney's office. An interim prosecutor was required immediately not only because the trial was imminent but because the underlying matter was controversial, and because the President's party didn't control the Senate, a body which then might not have confirmed a permanent nominee, assuming that the President even had one in mind at that point.. The court in the district in question was extremely hostile to what I was doing. Like the U.S. Attorney who resigned, the chief judge of the court in question saw my action as an unnecessary intrusion from Washington and never would have appointed a suitable interim prosecutor. And even if an unacceptable judicially-appointed prosecutor could be fired, and the Office of Legal Counsel Opinion on the subject generated during the Carter administration and still in force says that he could, that would have been utterly impracticable given the speed of events. In short, a judicial appointment, like that envisioned in S. 214, would have been counterproductive.
The judiciary in various districts has on a number of occasions in the past refused to appoint interim United States Attorneys under the pre-2006 law, and in other cases has appointed unqualified or unsuitable persons. Perhaps this reticence or ineffectiveness suggests discomfort in the judiciary with respect to undertaking an executive function. It should suggest something else.
This Committee, in particular, but the Senate and the House of Representatives more generally, frequently are interested in what Main Justice and the United States Attorneys are doing in a number of areas of interest including health care fraud, public corruption and the exploitation of children, to name a few. Direct congressional oversight of the Justice Department and U.S. Attorneys offices presents certain difficulties and disputes, but is usually manageable. I respectfully suggest that it is far less likely that effective oversight of a judicially-appointed interim U.S. Attorney, or the court that appointed him or her, could be achieved. I think the Committee and the public would be better served by retaining in the Executive, an inherently Executive Branch prerogative, i.e., the appointment of interim chief prosecutors.
As a reader of or listener to this testimony easily can gather, I do not see a problem with respect to the conduct of the Department of Justice, either in this administration or previously, that necessitates legislation to alter the current method of selection of interim United States Attorneys, or to change the way in which any administration selects, evaluates or replaces its officials. Many problems can be avoided or solved by rigorous adherence to the confirmation process both in terms of the President's promptly submitting U.S. Attorney nominations when vacancies are created, and this Committee's promptly conducting hearings.
Nor do I think that there is a federal prosecutorial system improperly influenced by political decision making. However, without reference to party, effectively separated constitutional powers allow and require meaningful congressional oversight. Both the majority and minority members of this Committee are fully capable of conducting such inquiries of the Justice Department and need no new legislative tools to do so.
Mr. Chairman, I thank you and the Committee for listening to my comments and I am happy to answer whatever questions you have to the best of my ability.