FOR THE WEEK OF APR 02, 2007
President and Congress clash over Justice Department dismissals
This Washington-based issue has impact around the country because each region with a Federal Distrcit Court has its own U.S. attorney. Challenge class members to find coverage with local reactions and other hometown angles.
Vigorous voices on each side aren't confined to Congress and TV news shows. Ask students to see what this paper's editorials, letter writers, columnists, bloggers and maybe the editorial page cartoonist are saying.
Some of the fired prosecutors originally generated attention by giving interviews, writing commentaries and appearing on talk shows. Start a classroom discuss about benefits and drawbacks of the news media's role in government accountability. What do students think the founders had in mind when they enshrined press freedom in the Constitution?
The Bush administration’s sudden firing of eight chief federal prosecutors around the country has provoked a congressional inquiry, heavy news coverage and recollections of an infamous 1973 Justice Department shakeup known as “the Saturday night massacre.” The actions by Justice Department officials, approved by Atty. Gen. Alberto Gonzales, originally were described as a routine change of a few appointees by the same administration that selected them.
Controversy arose when several dismissed law enforcers -– whose job titles were “U.S. attorney” -- suggested they were punished for not being political enough. The Justice Department is supposed to be nonpartisan, even though the president picks U.S. attorneys heading 94 district offices. The president and his attorney general vigorously deny partisan motives. “I would never, ever make a change in a United States attorney position for political reasons,” says Gonzles.
Congress heard last week from Gonzales’ former chief of staff, who resigned abruptly. In another move, a senior counselor to the attorney general took an indefinite personal leave and said she would use her Fifth Amendment protection against self-incrimination if called before Congress. The White House resists efforts to have two top presidential aides testify under oath and with a written record. The fight over how hearings can be conducted is escalating the dispute into a showdown over bedrock issues of American democracy – the presidential right of executive privilege, the constitutional separation of powers and the system of checks and balances between the White House and Congress.
Past U.S. attorney says: “Seemingly very well-regarded U.S. attorneys have been asked to leave without any evidence of misconduct or seeming cause.” – Mary Jo White, appointed by President Bill Clinton and served under current president
‘Saturday night massacre’: That historic nickname arose when a Republican attorney general and his top deputy resigned rather than obey President Richard Nixon’s order to fire a Watergate special prosecutor. It is cited now as a vivid example of Justice Department independence from politics.
What’s ahead: Gonzales, who was more involved in the firings than he initially disclosed, will be sharply questioned in two weeks. “This may end up drawing a more independent line between the White House and U.S. attorneys,” predicts Rory Little of an American Bar Association ethics task force
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