Time to repair a broken system

By By David Servatius

By David Servatius

It was a good week for America. There haven’t been many opportunities to say that lately, but when Attorney General Alberto Gonzales resigned early Monday, it became undeniably so.

Gonzales has been a divisive and damaging presence during his time at the helm of the Justice Department. This is the man who, as White House counsel, helped wipe out decades of American leadership on human rights by dismissing the Geneva Conventions as “quaint” and ushering in the era of torture. This is the man who also lied repeatedly under oath to Congress in order to protect President Bush from the scandal surrounding the fired U.S. attorneys — putting loyalty to one man above his constitutional duty to his country.

So, one of the darker chapters in the history of American justice is coming to a close. That’s good. But it’s what happens next that is of utmost importance.

The Justice Department is a unique place, different from other cabinet agencies. It requires extra care to protect its integrity; even the perception of its integrity. There is no room in a democracy for any doubt on the question of whether or not justice is being administered consistently and impartially. Yet in the wake of Gonzales’ tenure there is a great deal of doubt.

That is precisely why the country needs a fully independent, “Janet Reno” type in charge of the department now. Bill Clinton’s attorney general hounded him relentlessly for eight long years. In the end no reasonable, or even ridiculous, allegation leveled against his administration was left uninvestigated. As a result there was never any question about the ability of the department to function properly, as there is now. There were never any charges of cronyism. The president should nominate and the Congress should unanimously confirm someone in that mold.

Of course, given the way the president has operated over the past six years there is little realistic hope that he will nominate anyone remotely like that. The early signs suggest yet another confrontational choice coming. If so, it will be up to the congressional Democrats, as the majority party, to insist on full independence at the Justice Department. They must say no to someone like Ted Olson, who was too involved in the 2000 Florida election debacle or Michael Chertoff, who is tainted by his failures during Hurricane Katrina. They must stop any attempt by Bush to install someone to merely rubberstamp whatever crimes he wants to commit as he sees the end coming.

The congressional Democrats must also get assurances that several investigations will proceed with all necessary resources under the new attorney general. Serious matters such as the questionable wiretapping program, the suspect firing of several United States attorneys, and the selling of the Iraq war to the American people need to be investigated thoroughly.

Democratic party leaders must borrow a page from the Republican playbook and be righteous in their insistence on these points; because their position in this case will be the right one. There really is a great deal at stake. For the past several years we have been showing the world that our system of democracy can’t necessarily prevent us from making some pretty serious blunders as a nation. Now we have a golden opportunity to show the world that our system of democracy can, at least, quickly and effectively, correct these mistakes.

Ideals such as the separation of powers, checks and balances, the right to privacy and the humane treatment of all people, including our enemies, are not convenient things, especially in difficult times. But they are essential things to hold on to. They are what “America” is. We can start here, with this opportunity for new leadership at the Department of Justice, to reassert the importance of these ideals.

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