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The key lesson for picking a new FBI chief

Progress in justice

President Trump’s firing of FBI chief James Comey has touched a deep desire to restore rule of law. That desire for universal principles of justice must now guide the president and Senate in selecting a new FBI chief.

Solicitor General nominee Noel Francisco, left, Assistant Attorney General, Antitrust Division nominee Makan Delrahim, center, and Assistant Attorney General, Office of Legal Counsel, nominee Steven Engel, are sworn-in before testifying before the Senate Judiciary Committee's hearing on their nominations, on Capitol Hill in Washington, May 10.
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  • The Monitor's Editorial Board

 With President Trump’s controversial firing of FBI Director James Comey, the next crucial step in Washington is to restore the faith of Americans in rule of law. Mr. Trump must quickly nominate a new FBI chief who can pass Senate scrutiny and has enough independence to keep alive the agency’s probes of alleged wrongdoing – from Russian meddling to security leaks – that led to this crisis.

Americans have shown a keen interest in the process of choosing high-level officials of justice with the recent selections of a new Supreme Court justice, a new attorney general, and others. While the Senate may debate a person’s character, policies, or past decisions, this collective desire helps bind the process: Pick someone who can fairly apply the universal principles embedded in law to both individuals and society.

Not all nations adhere to this belief in an impersonal good that, if not yet fully grasped by everyone, is at least applied by a chosen few who, in being selected in a democratic way, are seen as virtuous, practical, and wise people.

Over the centuries, most nations have moved beyond the idea that rule of law comes from a monarch who claims a divine mandate. But many countries still tolerate autocrats who impose their will rather than honor the people’s hope to anchor human justice in the all-embracing higher concepts of justice, such as equality before the law and the intrinsic worth of the individual.

That hope for eternal ideas and virtues that guide human life has a long history. For Americans, it is found in this famed sentence in the Declaration of Independence: “We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, and that among these are Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness.”

Much of the public passion over the Comey firing is driven by this persistent desire to maintain a society guided by principles aptly applied by those with the widest support. The Senate, in tandem with the president, remains the vehicle for such an important selection.

If Americans do not want their institutions of justice – from the FBI to the Supreme Court – to become even more political than they are now, they and their representatives must reinforce the time-tested hope for a common good in decisions of law. That motive above all should guide the process of approving a new FBI chief.

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