As a young reporter covering Congress many years ago, it first dawned on me that not everyone has the same body of knowledge about how government works. Until then, I thought everyone knew certain basic things after taking a high school civics course. That, of course, is not the case.

The latest example is the controversy over the firing of eight U.S. attorneys by the Bush administration and the confusion on the part of the public about what was really going on.

Let’s start in the beginning. There is one U.S. attorney for each federal judicial district in the country. Some states (with relatively small populations) have only one judicial. Others have multiple judicial districts.

For example, the state of Texas has four such districts — the Northern District, the Southern District, the Eastern District and the Western District. The U.S. attorney is the chief federal prosecutor for the particular judicial district and, as such, is responsible for the administration of federal criminal justice in his or her particular district.

Federal courts deal with criminal matters such as mail fraud, enforcement of federal narcotics laws and tax evasion. Most violent criminal crimes, such as rape and murder, are dealt with through the state court system.

U.S. attorneys are nominated by the president and confirmed by the U.S. Senate in most cases (there are limited exceptions under the Patriot Act).

These appointments are made at the beginning of a president’s term and the U.S. attorneys normally serve the full length of a president’s term (either four or eight years). Home state senators from the president’s party make recommendations about who should be appointed U.S. attorney in their particular states.

It is indisputable that these are political appointments. When the presidency changes from one party to the other, all U.S. attorneys submit their resignations and new U.S. attorneys are appointed by the new administration.

These appointments normally go to politically ambitious young lawyers in the president’s party, though sometimes a president will name a career prosecutor from the particular judicial district rather than a party activist.

When Jimmy Carter was elected president in 1976, I asked to be appointed U.S. attorney for the Northern District of Texas (I had managed the Carter-Mondale campaign for North Texas that year).

I was passed over because I had supported the man who won the presidential election rather than the person who actually controlled the local patronage (Texas Sen. Lloyd Bentsen who had also run for the Democratic nomination for president that year).

That brings us to the current controversy. President Bush appointed a new set of U.S. attorneys in 2001 when he succeeded Bill Clinton as president. He named loyal Republicans, as it was his right to do; however, normally presidents do not change U.S. attorneys in the middle of their terms and certainly not for overtly partisan reasons.

U.S. attorneys are like wind-up toys. A president winds them up at the beginning of his term but then he and his Justice Department do not interfere politically in how they do their job.

That’s where Attorney General Alberto Gonzales got in trouble. He and others in the Bush administration (Karl Rove?) decided to fire eight U.S. attorneys for overtly political reasons and then lied about it to Congress, saying they were relieved of their duties because of poor job performance. Wrong on both counts.

Let’s cite a very specific example.

New Mexico Republican elected officials called their local U.S attorney, David Iglesias, right before last fall’s elections to question the status of pending criminal complaints against local Democrats on election fraud charges.

He ultimately did not prosecute these cases because of insufficient evidence and subsequently was fired by the Bush administration.

It was none of the Republican officeholders’ business whether or not he was going to bring election fraud changes against their political opponents. They were wrong to make the call. The Bush administration was wrong to fire him for not bringing the cases and was then wrong to lie about the reason they fired him.

Some years ago, while serving as a congressman from Texas, I was contacted by a high school classmate whose physician husband was about to go to a federal penitentiary for Medicare fraud.

She asked me to contact the local U.S. attorney to request leniency for her husband who had an otherwise exemplary record. I refused to make the call, explaining that we have separation of powers in this country and that it was inappropriate for me to call a U.S. attorney about a pending criminal matter.

New Mexico Republican officeholders should never have made the call to their U.S. attorney; the Bush administration should not have fired him for failing to prosecute Democrats and certainly should not have lied about the situation.

I guess they don’t teach civics in high school anymore. Maybe Alberto Gonzales was absent the day they taught about separation of powers. I doubt Karl Rove even remembers taking the course.

Martin Frost served in Congress from 1979 to 2005, representing a diverse district in the Dallas-Ft. Worth area. He served two terms as chairman of the House Democratic Caucus, the third-ranking leadership position for House Democrats, and two terms as chairman of the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee. Frost serves as a regular contributor to FOX News Channel and is a partner at the law firm of Polsinelli, Shalton, Flanigan and Suelthaus. He holds a Bachelor of Journalism degree from the University of Missouri and a law degree from the Georgetown Law Center.

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