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President is destroying faith in justice system

The stresses President Bush imposed on our military and our reputation abroad have now been spread with the same incompetence on the nation's justice system.

It doesn't really matter anymore to the nation whether Attorney General Alberto R. Gonzales stays or goes. Too much harm has been done by the political firings of federal prosecutors who were, in the words of a Justice Department officer, not "loyal Bushies." It will take the next two presidents to put things back together.

Gonzales may never really have thought of himself as the nation's chief magistrate, only a legal valet Bush brought with him from Texas brandishing a Harvard law degree.

Crucial decisions at the Justice Department, Gonzales on Thursday suggested, may have been left to presidential adviser Karl Rove or other dark figures at the White House, in Congress and in the Republican political committees.

Asked during the hearing when he lost confidence in David Iglesias, the U.S. attorney in New Mexico, Gonzales blurted out that Iglesias had "lost the confidence of Sen. Domenici."

Gonzales blithely referred to Sen. Pete Domenici, R-N.M., who had called Iglesias to complain about lack of activity on public corruption cases the aging senator wanted tried. Domenici then moaned about Iglesias to Rove, and ultimately to Bush.

Iglesias also heard from Rep. Heather Wilson, R-N.M., about his political shortcomings.

Members of the House and Senate have no business whatsoever calling federal prosecutors and telling them who to indict. It's inexcusable interference with the nation's justice system and a violation of the codes of ethics of both houses.

It ought to be a crime.

A prudent president would have distanced himself completely from Domenici's rantings. Yet not long afterward, Iglesias' name was added to six other Republican prosecutors who were removed, without prior notice or cause, by the White House in December in the middle of Bush's final term.

Gonzales' former chief of staff, Kyle Sampson, said something ominous in his congressional testimony last month. Sampson could give no reason for Iglesias' firing, but added that if a U.S. attorney wasn't succeeding politically, he wasn't succeeding.

On the surface, the Gonzales crisis looks like partisan politics. But Republican Sen. Jeff Session, a federal prosecutor in Alabama for 12 years, touched the heart of the matter when he warned against eroding the public's trust in the justice system.

In America and most western republics, public order depends not on prosecution but on citizens' voluntary compliance with the law.

Voluntary compliance with the law requires a measure of belief, on balance, in the justice system; that to the degree humanly possible, it is fair.

Prosecutors need the respect of federal judges, federal investigators and the willing suspension of disbelief by jurors and witnesses. Prosecutors need to know their decisions to indict aren't going to be monitored and censored by members of Congress, the "president's brain" or some local political hack.

That fabric of trust has been badly torn by Rove, by Gonzales and, most of all, by the president and his crowd who more and more act like people who have no respect for the government that was entrusted to them.

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A kind of ideological trifecta was scored by Rep. Brian Higgins, D-Buffalo, in the last campaign. In addition to the $4,000 his campaign got from the National Abortion Rights Action League, Higgins received $2,025 from the Human Rights Campaign, a gay rights group, and $1,120 from the National Rifle Association.

e-mail: dturner@buffnews.com

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