Senate judiciary panel revises rule for U.S. attorneys

Plan restricts the authority of the U.S. attorney general from filling prosecutor vacancies for an unlimited time without Senate confirmation.

Reacting to Democratic allegations the Bush administration fired several U.S. attorneys possibly for politically connected replacements, the Senate Judiciary Committee on Thursday revised rules for filling U.S. attorney vacancies.

On a 13-6 vote, the committee adopted a compromise measure from Senate Judiciary Chairman Patrick Leahy, ranking member Arlen Specter, R-Pa., and Sen. Dianne Feinstein, D-Calif. Their plan restricts the authority of the U.S. attorney general from filling prosecutor vacancies for an unlimited time without Senate confirmation.

The committee held a hearing Tuesday on the firings of at least seven U.S. attorneys. Deputy Attorney General Paul McNulty said six of the U.S. attorneys were dismissed for "performance related" matters. A seventh, former U.S. Attorney Ed Cummins of Little Rock, Ark., was let go last year to be replaced by J. Timothy Griffin, a former aide to presidential adviser Karl Rove, McNulty acknowledged.

But McNulty denied Democratic charges that the dismissals were politicized to reward Republicans and avoid the Senate confirmation process.

One of those fired was former U.S. Attorney Carol Lam of San Diego, who prosecuted former Rep. Randy (Duke) Cunningham, R-Calif. Cunningham pleaded guilty to accepting about $2.4 million in bribes. The Justice Department has denied Lam was fired because of the Cunningham case, which was praised by McNulty as "a very good thing for the American people." However, he did not give a reason for Lam's dismissal.

Under the USA PATRIOT Act reauthorization last year, a provision was inserted that eliminated a century-long rule that limited the attorney general to making interim appointments to fill vacancies for no more than 120 days. Under the old rule, if a U.S. attorney vacancy was not filled within 120 days, the U.S. District Court could fill the vacancy.

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