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Trust-busting the prosecutors

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A winter snow squall over the firing of eight US attorneys has turned into a spring blizzard. A constitutional crisis is brewing. The attorney general is being buried by criticism. In these white-out conditions, it's helpful to focus on what started it all.

This clash began when questions were asked about whether the US prosecutors were fired for cause, as the administration says, or for political gain, as Democrats and some of the prosecutors suspect.

Whether the suspicions are true is an important question. They relate to fair application of law. Fairness breeds trust – without which a legal system can't operate in a democracy.

This week, President Bush emphatically denied politics as the motivation in the firings. But he also reminded people that US prosecutors – the attorneys who go after those who break federal laws – are political appointees who serve at the pleasure of the president.

It may strike many as odd that a US prosecutor is a political appointee. At the state level, voters mostly elect prosecutors. But voters still have a say at the federal level – it's just very indirect.

Federal crime is a big, wide world, and voters select their enforcement priorities in electing a president. A president may decide, for instance, to focus on civil rights enforcement (historically a Democratic issue) or, as with this president, immigration and drug laws. Under Mr. Bush, immigration prosecutions more than doubled during his first term, soaring above those of the Clinton era. And Bush put less emphasis on white-collar crime during that time, and those prosecutions declined compared with those in the Clinton years.

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