The nation's lawyer

THE role of the attorney general of the United States has always been somewhat ambivalent. The person holding that position is the chief legal officer of the executive branch of the United States government. But he is also entrusted with enforcing the laws of the land, which means that he stands as a legal representative of the American people as a whole. Clearly, the challenge for an attorney general is to strike a careful balance in initiating and administering the nation's laws.

Some attorneys general have been more successful in this balancing than have others: Griffin Bell, considered a ``conservative'' by many of his close associates in the Carter administration, is widely regarded to have been adept at striking this equilibrium. Other recent attorneys general have tended to stress their role as executive branch legal officer. Examples: Robert Kennedy, in the Kennedy administration, and, although the tone and political agenda were quite different, John Mitchell in the Nixon administration.

We mention all this because of the broad goals outlined by Attorney General Edwin Meese last week. In interviews, Mr. Meese presented an agenda that could hardly be said to differ from that of the White House's election goals. Among other items, he reportedly called for wider use of the death penalty, expanded police powers to fight violent crime, wider use of incriminating evidence gathered in questionable police searches, and, an easing of antitrust barriers that inhibit global sales by US firms.

Attorneys general have wide latitude to pick and choose among the laws they wish to enforce. But that is why the issue of balance becomes so important. In his speech after taking his oath of office, Mr. Meese said that the Department of Justice would ``be fiercely independent in accurately interpreting and vigorously upholding the law.''

As Mr. Meese has correctly identified, this test will be the standard by which his service will be measured during the next several years.

Such independence would mean vigorously enforcing civil rights laws; cracking down on white collar as well as street crime; upholding current antitrust and other corporate laws.

An outstanding attorney general, as the nation's history shows, cannot stand totally apart from the White House. But as past history also indicates, the office -- at its best -- must represent all the American people. That will be the challenge for Mr. Meese, in the best tradition of attorneys general who have served their nation before him. ------30{et

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