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There’s a theory that the appointment of Tim Griffin as U.S. attorney at Little Rock was the result of a comic misunderstanding: A joker in the Justice Department, noting Griffin’s work digging up dirt on Democrats for Karl Rove and the Republican National Committee, said, “This guy should be prosecuted,” and somebody else in the chain of command heard “This guy should be prosecutor.” Others say the Griffin appointment is part of the Bush administration’s “No hack left behind” program.

Kidding aside, the main issue in the Griffin case is not his questionable suitability for an important and supposedly nonpartisan position after having spent most of his professional life in the guerilla warfare of partisan politics. If Griffin’s appointment had followed what was the normal procedure for 120 years and been subject to Senate confirmation, Griffin probably would have been approved by the Senate. Most presidential choices are. Instead of following that procedure, the administration took advantage of a loophole that it had quietly slipped into the law a year ago, allowing the appointment of U.S. attorneys without Senate oversight. The Justice Department dismissed seven U.S. attorneys around the country, including Bud Cummins at Little Rock, for no reason except to allow Attorney General Alberto Gonzales to make such appointments. The seven attorneys who were dismissed had all gone through the confirmation process. Some, like Cummins, were highly regarded in their districts. In the state of Washington, federal judges publicly endorsed a U.S. attorney who was given the boot by Gonzales.

The change in the law allowing appointments like Griffin’s was part of the 2006 reauthorization of the USAPATRIOT Act, and it should have been challenged before it passed. Democrats say now that there might have been objections had Senate leaders — Republicans at that time — allowed hearings on the bill. But there were no hearings, and congressmen of both parties thoughtlessly flocked to support any legislation that had the word “patriot” in the title.

Finally realizing they were snookered, Senate Democrats, and a number of their Republican colleagues, are supporting legislation to again require Senate confirmation for U.S. attorneys. Both Arkansas senators have endorsed the legislation, and Mark Pryor is one of the leading spokesmen for it. “This is larger than party affiliation and larger than one appointment,” he’s said, and he’s right. (Though it may be true, as many speculate, that the administration expects the new U.S. attorneys to create or abet political mischief in their districts.) If approved, as it should be, the legislation will require that Griffin go through the confirmation process or give up the U.S. attorney’s office within a few months. He’ll have a hard time winning Senate approval, now that the administration’s sneakiness has called attention to him.

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