|Law practice, law enforcement, politics|
|Competencies||Advocacy skills, analytical mind, sense of justice, political fit|
|Law degree, bar exam|
|Government legal service|
|Prosecutor, district attorney, state's attorney, commonwealth's attorney|
United States attorneys are officials of the U.S. Department of Justice who serve as the chief federal law enforcement officers in each of the 94 U.S. federal judicial districts. Each U.S. attorney serves as the United States' chief federal criminal prosecutor in their judicial district and represents the U.S. federal government in civil litigation in federal and state court within their geographic jurisdiction. U.S. attorneys must be nominated by the President and confirmed by the Senate, after which they serve four-year terms.
Currently, there are 93 U.S. attorneys in 94 district offices located throughout the United States, Puerto Rico, the U.S. Virgin Islands, Guam, and the Northern Mariana Islands. One U.S. attorney is assigned to each of the judicial districts, with the exception of Guam and the Northern Mariana Islands, where a single U.S. attorney serves both districts. Each U.S. attorney is the chief federal law enforcement officer within a specified jurisdiction, acting under the guidance of the United States Attorneys' Manual. They supervise district offices with as many as 350 assistant U.S. attorneys (AUSAs) and as many as 350 support personnel.
U.S. Attorney's Offices are staffed mainly by assistant U.S. Attorneys (AUSA). Often colloquially called "federal prosecutors", assistant U.S. attorneys are government lawyers who act as prosecutors in federal criminal trials and as the United States federal government's lawyers in civil litigation in which the United States is a party. In carrying out their duties as prosecutors, AUSAs have the authority to investigate persons, issue subpoenas, file formal criminal charges, plea bargain with defendants, and grant immunity to witnesses and accused criminals.
U.S. attorneys and their offices are part of the Department of Justice. U.S. attorneys receive oversight, supervision, and administrative support services through the Justice Department's Executive Office for United States Attorneys. Selected U.S. attorneys participate in the Attorney General's Advisory Committee of United States Attorneys.
U.S. attorneys are appointed by the President of the United States for a term of four years, with appointments subject to confirmation by the Senate. A U.S. attorney continues in office, beyond the appointed term, until a successor is appointed and qualified. By law, each United States attorney is subject to removal by the President. The Attorney General has had the authority since 1986 to appoint interim U.S. attorneys to fill a vacancy.
|Dismissal of U.S. attorneys controversy|
Main article: Dismissal of U.S. attorneys controversy
The governing statute, 28 U.S.C. § 546 provided, up until March 9, 2006:
(c) A person appointed as United States attorney under this section may serve until the earlier of—
- (1) the qualification of a United States attorney for such district appointed by the President under section 541 of this title; or
- (2) the expiration of 120 days after appointment by the Attorney General under this section.
(d) If an appointment expires under subsection (c)(2), the district court for such district may appoint a United States attorney to serve until the vacancy is filled. The order of appointment by the court shall be filed with the clerk of the court.
On March 9, 2006, President George W. Bush signed into law the USA PATRIOT and Terrorism Prevention Reauthorization Act of 2005 which amended Section 546 by striking subsections (c) and (d) and inserting the following new subsection:
(c) A person appointed as United States attorney under this section may serve until the qualification of a United States Attorney for such district appointed by the President under section 541 of this title.
This, in effect, extinguished the 120-day limit on interim U.S. attorneys, and their appointment had an indefinite term. If the president failed to put forward any nominee to the Senate, then the Senate confirmation process was avoided, as the Attorney General-appointed interim U.S. attorney could continue in office without limit or further action. Related to the dismissal of U.S. attorneys controversy, in March 2007 the Senate and the House voted to re-instated the 120-day term limit on interim attorneys. The bill was signed by President George W. Bush, and became law in June 2007.
Senator Dianne Feinstein (D, California), summarized the history of interim United States Attorney appointments, on March 19, 2007 in the Senate.
When first looking into this issue, I found that the statutes had given the courts the authority to appoint an interim U.S. attorney and that this dated back as far as the Civil War. Specifically, the authority was first vested with the circuit courts in March 1863.
Then, in 1898, a House of Representatives report explained that while Congress believed it was important to have the courts appoint an interim U.S. attorney:
"There was a problem relying on circuit courts since the circuit justice is not always to be found in the circuit and time is wasted in ascertaining his whereabouts."
Therefore, at that time, the interim appointment authority was switched to the district courts; that is, in 1898 it was switched to the district courts.
Thus, for almost 100 years, the district courts were in charge of appointing interim U.S. attorneys, and they did so with virtually no problems. This structure was left undisturbed until 1986 when the statute was changed during the Reagan administration. In a bill that was introduced by Senator Strom Thurmond, the statute was changed to give the appointment authority to the Attorney General, but even then it was restricted and the Attorney General had a 120-day time limit. After that time, if a nominee was not confirmed, the district courts would appoint an interim U.S. attorney. The adoption of this language was part of a larger package that was billed as technical amendments to criminal law, and thus there was no recorded debate in either the House or the Senate and both Chambers passed the bill by voice vote.
Then, 20 years later, in March 2006 – again without much debate and again as a part of a larger package – a statutory change was inserted into the PATRIOT Act reauthorization. This time, the Executive's power was expanded even further, giving the Attorney General the authority to appoint an interim replacement indefinitely and without Senate confirmation.
The U.S. attorney is both the primary representative and the administrative head of the Office of the U.S. Attorney for the district. The U.S. Attorney's Office (USAO) is the chief prosecutor for the United States in criminal law cases, and represents the United States in civil law cases as either the defendant or plaintiff, as appropriate. However, they are not the only ones that may represent the United States in Court. In certain circumstances, using an action called a qui tam, any U.S. citizen, provided they are represented by an attorney, can represent the interests of the United States, and share in penalties assessed against guilty parties.
As chief federal law enforcement officers, U.S. attorneys have authority over all federal law enforcement personnel within their districts and may direct them to engage, cease or assist in investigations. In practice, this has involved command of Federal Bureau of Investigation assets but also includes other agencies under the Department of Justice, such as the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco and Firearms and Drug Enforcement Administration. Additionally, U.S. attorneys cooperate with other non-DOJ law enforcement agencies – such as the United States Secret Service and Immigration and Customs Enforcement – to prosecute cases relevant to their jurisdictional areas.
The U.S. attorney for the District of Columbia has the additional responsibility of prosecuting local criminal cases in the Superior Court of the District of Columbia, the equivalent of a municipal court for the national capital. The Superior Court is a federal Article I court.
The Executive Office for United States Attorneys (EOUSA) provides the administrative support for the 93 United States attorneys (encompassing 94 United States Attorney offices, as the Guam and the Northern Mariana Islands has a single U.S. attorney for both districts), including:
These responsibilities include certain legal, budgetary, administrative, and personnel services, as well as legal education.
The EOUSA was created on April 6, 1953, by Attorney General Order No. 8-53 to provide for close liaison between the Department of Justice in Washington, DC, and the 93 U.S. attorneys located throughout the 50 states, the District of Columbia, Guam, the Northern Mariana Islands, Puerto Rico, and the U.S. Virgin Islands. It was organized by Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals judge James R. Browning, who also served as its first chief.
Note: Except as indicated parenthetically, the foregoing links are to the corresponding district court, rather than to the U.S. Attorney's Office.