Attorney general should wear the mantle of law, not politics

THE trials and tribulations of former US Attorney General Edwin Meese III are not likely to be a campaign issue in the presidential contest between Republican George Bush and Democrat Michael Dukakis. What will be an issue, however, and should be, is the administration of justice in the United States. And this discussion must include the role of the Justice Department and the attorney general, who, it should be remembered, is the nation's top law officer.

Much speculation will be made over who will serve in a Bush or a Dukakis Cabinet. Perhaps more important is what approach various members of the White House inner circle would take to their jobs.

No position is more vital to the application of the rule of law than that of the attorney general.

What will be the new incumbent's stance toward civil rights and affirmative action?

How will he (or she) be disposed toward punishing those accused of capital crimes?

Will a crackdown on drugs be a top priority?

Should juveniles be afforded the same constitutional protections as adults?

Obviously the top person at the Justice Department will take the lead from the Oval Office on these issues. This is the way it should be. A Cabinet officer is expected to express the general philosophy of the president who appointed him.

We have learned through recent history, however, that obsessive political loyalty can run into conflict with the impartial administration of law.

Ideally, the attorney general should, like Caesar's wife, be above suspicion. It is important that all segments of the nation - rich and poor and black and white - have confidence that the Justice Department is fair and impartial in its interpretation of the law.

That has not always been the case. And sometimes appearances haven't helped. A Robert Kennedy attorney generalship had to be viewed in the context of service to his presidential brother. John Mitchell was a law partner to Richard Nixon before the latter tapped him for a Cabinet post. Mitchell's Watergate involvement, and resulting Watergate-related conviction, grew mainly from his political activities on behalf of the President's reelection campaign.

Meese, a personal friend and political aide to Ronald Reagan dating back to gubernatorial days in California, resigned under pressure. After an extensive investigation, an independent prosecutor said Meese had probably violated federal tax and conflict-of-interest laws. But criminal prosecution was not recommended.

The appointment of former Pennsylvania Gov. Dick Thornburgh to the post to replace Meese has been hailed by both political parties. Thornburgh has a reputation for being a tough but independent lawman. He is not expected to take a lead in promoting the Reagan political agenda.

The new attorney general has promised he would be ``hypersensitive'' to the type of ethical controversies that surrounded his predecessor.

Some analysts have already said that, if elected in November, Bush would do well to extend the Thornburgh tenure.

One might be so bold as to suggest that even if Dukakis is elected, Thornburgh - if he proves effective in his post - be allowed to continue in office.

Just the idea of an attorney general of the opposite political party from the president is refreshing. It may not, however, be practical.

Outgoing American Bar Association president Robert McCrate wrote to both presidential candidates in early August, asking them to ``make a commitment to the American people that their attorney general would have the highest professional qualifications and would not be appointed on the basis of political considerations.''

McCrate suggested that the US Senate scrutinize the nomination of the nation's top justice official with the same care given to a Supreme Court appointment.

A Thursday column

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