U.S. Senator Lamar Alexander today urged his colleagues to put aside ‘excessive partisanship’ in the controversy over the recent firing of eight U.S. Attorneys, and move forward on to more pressing issues facing the nation. He cited his personal experience with state and federal attorneys who put principle above politics in his early swearing-in as governor of Tennessee.
Alexander’s statement, as prepared for delivery on the Senate floor, is below:
Mr. President, my late friend Alex Haley, the author of Roots, lived his life by six words: “Find the Good and Praise It.” I thought of those six words in connection with the current discussion about the firing of eight United States Attorneys.
The Democrats are making political hay out of these firings at a time when the Senate should be focused on Iraq, terrorism, health care costs, excessive federal spending, energy independence and keeping our brainpower advantage so we can keep our good jobs here instead of seeing them move overseas.
U.S. Attorneys have always been political appointees serving at the pleasure of the president. President Clinton fired them all on his first day in office. Such partisanship is nothing new. Former Attorney General Griffin Bell recently said that the custom once was for U.S. attorneys simply to vacate their offices on the day a new president was inaugurated, knowing that new political appointees would soon arrive to take their desks.
In the summer of 1963, in between my first and second year at New York University Law School, I worked in Attorney General Robert Kennedy's office as an intern. I was so impressed that, after graduation, I drove to Chattanooga to apply for a job as an Assistant U.S. Attorney. The interview went fine until the U.S. Attorney for the Eastern District of Tennessee asked about my politics.
“I'm a Republican,” I said.
“Sorry,” he said, “We only hire Democrats.”
“But the Attorney General said the administration of justice was non-partisan,” I replied.
“That word hasn't gotten down here,” the U.S. Attorney said.
Yet the historic political nature of these appointments is no excuse for the excessive partisanship, amateurishness and bumbling exhibited by the firing of these eight U.S. Attorneys in the middle of the president's term. The best way to put in relief what is wrong with these firings is to remember Alex Haley's admonition, “Find the Good and Praise It,” and point to an example of how political appointees can by their courageous action earn respect for the administration of justice.
I have a personal interest in the example I offer. Nearly thirty years ago – on January 17, 1979 – I was sworn into office three days early as governor of Tennessee in order to prevent the incumbent governor from issuing 52 pardons and commutations to prisoners the FBI believed had paid cash for their release.
The U.S. Attorney for the Middle District of Tennessee, Hal Hardin – a Democrat appointed by President Carter – telephoned to ask me to take office early. Hardin was working with the state attorney general, William Leech, another Democrat, to arrange the unprecedented early swearing-in. Because Hardin and Leech were able to rise above partisanship, the Speakers of the Senate and House and Chief Justice as well as the Secretary of State – also all Democrats – participated in my early swearing-in and the ouster of a Democratic incumbent governor.
As it turned out, I was the only Republican in the group.
As then-Speaker of the House and later governor Ned McWherter said, “We are Tennesseans first.”
The story of January 17, 1979 was recently retold by Judge William C. Koch, a member of the Tennessee Court of Appeals, in the March 2007 issue of the Nashville Bar Journal. Judge Koch was on the staff of the state attorney general at that time and later was counsel when I was governor.
In the spirit of “Find the Good and Praise It,” I offer for the record Judge Koch's article as an example of how our system of political appointment of U.S. Attorneys can and should operate, in contrast to the example of the eight firings and the response to those firings we are discussing today.
The article referenced above can be found at http://www.nashbar.org/NBJ%20online/NBJ%202007/MARCH07NBJ.pdf