At issue is whether the Bush administration went too far, pressuring the attorneys to help the GOP.
At the heart of the dispute over the firing of eight US attorneys may be this question: Were the reasons for their dismissal properly political or improperly political?
Federal prosecutors serve at the pleasure of the president, after all. It's appropriate that they follow the general political priorities of the chief executive who appointed them, say legal experts.
The issue in this case is whether Bush administration officials went too far and engaged in unacceptable actions – such as pressuring the attorneys to use their powers for the specific electoral benefit of the GOP.
"US attorneys should be fair-minded and independent and not make judgments about prosecutions or indictments on truly political grounds," says Carl Tobias, a law professor at the University of Richmond.
For instance, some Democrats have charged that Carol Lam, the former US attorney in San Diego, was fired due to her pursuit of a wide-ranging public-corruption case that snared a former Republican congressman, Randy "Duke" Cunningham of California.
John McKay, the former US attorney in Seattle, has himself said indications are he was fired because of his refusal to bring voter fraud cases after the 2004 Washington gubernatorial election, which the Democratic candidate won narrowly.
David Iglesias, former US attorney in Albuquerque, N.M., similarly has said he received phone calls from congressional Republicans rebuking him for not pursuing Democrats more aggressively in election-year investigations.
"The dismissed US attorneys have testified under oath and said in public that they believe political influence was applied. They have given chapter and verse and specific examples," said Sen. Patrick Leahy (D) of Vermont, chairman of the Senate Judiciary Committee, at a Thursday hearing. "If they are right, that mixing of partisan political goals into federal law enforcement is highly improper."
The former Justice Department official who was at the center of the effort to identify US attorneys for dismissal has publicly maintained that in his view none of them was fired for improper reasons.
Kyle Sampson, former chief of staff to Attorney General Alberto Gonzales, said at Thursday's Senate Judiciary hearing that in his view the distinction between "political" and "performance-related" reasons for removing a US attorney is largely artificial.