In a meeting last month with the Barack Obama’s transition staff, representatives of the nation’s top prosecutors caught a glimpse of the president-elect’s thinking on the politically fraught issue of what to do with the the current 93 U.S. attorneys.
“[The president-elect] is going to be smart and be cautious. My gut feeling is it won’t be like it was in 1993,” said U.S. Attorney Johnny Sutton of Texas’ Western District, a member of the Attorney General’s Advisory Committee of U.S. Attorneys. On Dec. 11, Sutton and 15 other members of the committee met with Obama’s DOJ transition chief, David Ogden, and his staff at the Justice Department to advise them on law enforcement issues and to point out areas the committee believes require special attention.
At the meeting, Ogden briefly discussed the U.S. attorney issue, though he said he had had no role in deciding who stays and who goes, according to one committee member. Ogden, a partner at Wilmer Cutler Pickering Hale and Dorr, is reportedly the leading candidate for the Justice Department's No. 2 spot.
Sutton declined to characterize Ogden’s comments but said he left the meeting with the impression that the president-elect will address the U.S. attorneys individually. “I think they’re going to work on a case-by-case basis,” said Sutton, who as a member of the Bush-Cheney transition took part in similar meetings before he was a committee member.
A Justice Department official declined to discuss the committee's recommendations to the transition staff or Ogden's comments regarding the fate of the current set of U.S. attorneys. "It was a productive, informational meeting," the official said. The transition team also met with members of the civil chiefs working group and members of the criminal chiefs working group, which are extensions of the advisory committee.
The last two administrations suffered political wounds for their handling of U.S. attorneys. The Justice Department is still recovering from the scandal over the firings of nine U.S. attorneys in President George W. Bush’s second term, and President Bill Clinton and Attorney General Janet Reno were panned for sacking 92 of them in 1993, a move critics said disrupted the continuity of leadership in the U.S. attorneys offices during the transition.
At least one U.S. attorney is destined to hold his job well past Jan. 20. Obama has said publicly he will retain Patrick Fitzgerald, of Illinois’ Northern District, who is supervising the criminal case against Gov. Rod Blagojevich.