Center on Latino and Latina Rights and Equality
Op-Ed: The US Attorney Scandal and Lessons for the Latino Community
Aug 6, 2008
Originally published in El Diario/La Prensa NY: La independencia de nuestros fiscales federales
The Department of Justice (DOJ), the United States Attorney General, Congress, and the White House have been embroiled in allegations that the firing of several United States Attorneys, including seven on December 7, 2006, was for political reasons, and at the behest of White House officials. The claims of mismanagement, and apparent misleading and incomplete statements to the Senate Judiciary Committee about the firings set the stage for the resignation of Alberto Gonzales, the first Latino to hold the position of Attorney General of the United States. As political issues go, this is major and there are important lessons for the Latino community to draw from the circumstances and allegations surrounding the firing of the US Attorneys.
There are 93 US Attorneys, appointed by the President, who have expansive authority over the lives of people within their respective jurisdictions. These US Attorneys make life and death, and life-altering decisions about whether and who to prosecute, and how best to implement the Administration's law enforcement priorities. The decision to put resources into any particular case is an important one with serious repercussions for individuals and communities and should depend on the merits of the case and not political opportunism. The independence of the person who makes decisions about who will be prosecuted for a federal crime, and how and to what extent the nation's immigration laws and civil rights laws shall be enforced is critical to our democratic society.
David Iglesias, former US Attorney for New Mexico, discusses in his book, In Justice Inside the Scandal that Rocked the Bush Administration, his version of the firings, including his own. His story illustrates the importance of preserving prosecutorial independence. The book describes extensive efforts of elected and appointed republican officials to direct and undermine prosecutorial decision making, including in cases involving alleged voter fraud. Mr. Iglesias states that US Attorneys "are empowered to take away your life, liberty and property." (p. 123) He also admits, "...U.S. Attorneys wielded the power to wreak havoc on the electoral process if they so intended." (p. 132). In his story he recounts the pressure on him to pursue certain cases and to reveal confidential information about investigations that benefitted Republicans. Mr. Iglesias concludes that the US Attorneys "were just collateral damage in a larger battle to refashion government to reflect the ideals and the values of a single partisan agenda." (p. 208).
What lessons are there for the Latino community in the termination of Mr. Iglesias and other US Attorneys and in the investigation of whether they were in fact pressured by an overzealous White House to pursue certain voter fraud prosecutions for political ends? Certainly there are lessons as how best to articulate and address concerns about the fair and just treatment of Latino US Attorneys a minority of those appointed--and claims like those of Mr. Iglesias that "[i]t was his job to protect the integrity of the institution he led, and in that respect, Alberto Gonzales was a miserable failure." (p. 218).
The Latino community also has an opportunity to carefully examine how US Attorneys exercise their authority over people and issues that matter to the Latino community. The independence of US Attorneys ensures that this is a country of laws and not men and women who will do anything and say anything, and break the law to further their political agenda.
Were such federal power limited only to affecting an individual's future we should be sufficiently outraged at the politicization of prosecutorial discretion, but if, as is alleged in the case of this scandal, there was pressure to deploy the power of federal prosecutors to disenfranchise communities, then the Latino community must demand accountability from our public officials and assurances that our federal prosecutors' independence will not be compromised in the future. Before this sad chapter in US history is closed, those who sought to benefit politically at the cost of the US Constitution and the right to vote, must be held accountable.