latimes.com: Conservatives Poised for Justice Dept. Shift to Right
WASHINGTON (Los Angeles Times) -- Conservatives in this town have spent much of the last eight years targeting Atty. Gen. Janet Reno.
Now it's their turn to take a crack at shaping law enforcement policy at the U.S. Justice Department under President-elect George W. Bush, and that could mean broad changes--or wholesale cutbacks--in areas such as civil rights, antitrust, immigration, gun control, and juvenile and domestic abuse programs.
Indeed, the announcement Thursday by Montana Gov. Marc Racicot that he does not want to be considered for the attorney general's job could portend even bigger shifts to the right.
Racicot, with three of his five children still in college, said that he wants to tend to his responsibilities at home in Montana. A front-runner for the attorney general's post, Racicot was viewed as a relative moderate, and his departure appears to open the way for a more conservative candidate to get the job. Gov. Frank Keating of Oklahoma is seen as the strongest contender. Two Missouri Republicans, former Sen. John C. Danforth and outgoing Sen. John Ashcroft, also are said to be in contention.
Whoever gets the job will have to balance Bush's desire for a more minimalist approach to federal policing against the need to sustain the historic plunge in national crime rates.
"This will be a strongly Republican Department of Justice, with less concern about antitrust violations, somewhat less concern about civil rights prosecution, somewhat less concern about environmental misconduct," predicted Eric Sterling, president of the Criminal Justice Policy Foundation, a think tank here.
"It won't be indifferent to any of those issues, but it's going to be further right on the spectrum, no question about it," he said.
Changes in style may be more immediate than shifts in substance.
Reno, always careful with her words, adopted an increasingly cautious approach over nearly eight years as she came under ever-increasing fire from Republicans in Congress on such issues as campaign finance investigations and national security.
The current candidates for attorney general are regarded as far more outspoken. And since Republicans control the House and the Senate--with the help of Vice President-elect Dick Cheney's tie-breaking vote in the upper chamber--Reno's successor is virtually assured of getting more congressional support than she did for most of her tenure.
Even as Reno prepares to leave office, many Republicans in Congress still speak bitterly about her administration, firing off accusations that Democrats deem unfair.
While Republican leaders have been wary of publicly commenting on whom Bush might choose for attorney general, one House aide who works on law enforcement issues but asked not to be identified said that the GOP is looking to the new Justice chief to "restore integrity to law enforcement."
"The whole question of the scandals that this Justice Department has either abetted or covered up is certainly a matter of a lot of concern to a lot of people," the Republican aide said. "The ability of somebody to tell the truth candidly would be in marked contrast to this administration. It'll be a breath of fresh air."
Rep. John L. Mica (R-Fla.), who heads a House subcommittee on criminal justice, laughed when asked what changes he expects at the Justice Department.
"It can only be brighter," he said.
Under Reno, he said, "they've spent a small fortune . . . going after a lot of business and white-collar crime. I'm more interested in drug trafficking, organized crime, going after that type of hard-core criminal activity and getting a better balance."
Not that all conservatives are so eagerly awaiting Bush's choice for attorney general.
Larry Klayman, chairman of Judicial Watch, a conservative legal foundation that has been one of President Clinton's harshest critics, said he has been put off by Bush's repeated attempts in recent weeks to strike a tone of "conciliation" with Democrats.
"He doesn't want to rock the boat and, from our standpoint in dealing with public corruption issues, we're not real optimistic that whoever Gov. Bush appoints [as attorney general] is going to be real strong," he said.
Before Racicot's withdrawal Thursday--he had told Bush of his decision in Austin, Texas, on Wednesday--he and Keating were considered front-runners to lead the new Justice Department.
Keating, a former FBI agent, served as a Justice Department prosecutor during the administration of Bush's father. As Oklahoma governor, he earned high marks across the nation for his handling of the 1995 bombing of an Oklahoma City federal building, which took 168 lives.
He is considered more conservative than Racicot but not as conservative as Ashcroft or Danforth. Ashcroft will be out of a job next month because he lost his Missouri Senate seat to the widow of his Democratic rival, Gov. Mel Carnahan, who died in a campaign plane crash.
Danforth left the Senate in 1994. He was named by Reno earlier this year to head an outside investigation of the 1993 Branch Davidian siege by federal agents near Waco, Texas, that left more than 80 cultists and their children dead. The inquiry cleared the Justice Department of wrongdoing.
Conservatives will look to the Bush Justice Department to beef up a number of areas, including enforcement of gun laws.
Under Reno, the department has pushed Congress unsuccessfully to enact new gun-control measures, such as a provision killed by Republicans last year that would have regulated the sale of guns at gun shows. At the same time, however, the department has come under fire from conservatives for prosecuting fewer federal gun violations in recent years.
The National Rifle Assn. and other gun-control opponents say that, if the department would simply do a better job of prosecuting the laws already on the books, there would be no need for new ones. Such pressure from the NRA, whose second-ranking officer boasted earlier this year of the group's "unbelievably friendly relations" with Bush, could lead to more and toughened prosecutions of gun violators and traffickers, conservatives say.
Other issues a Bush Justice Department may spotlight include pursuing more death penalty cases in federal courts, federal tort reform and limits on class-action litigation, and beefing up immigration personnel, according to political and legal observers.
But many believe that the biggest changes may center on what the administration decides not to do.
"The concern, looking back on previous Republican administrations from the Democratic perspective, is that [changes] often have more to do with neglect than aggressive attempts to change the law," said the aide to a leading Senate Democrat. "There's a sense that they'll just withdraw on certain issues rather than forge new ground."
For instance, Bush has already taken issue with the department's practice of aggressively investigating patterns of wrongdoing by local police departments and--in cases such as Los Angeles--imposing reforms. As a general rule, Bush said, he does not believe federal authorities should be "constantly second-guessing local law enforcement decisions."
Other efforts that the Bush department could move to scale back include antitrust enforcement against behemoth corporations, including the federal government's historic lawsuit against Microsoft Corp.; ongoing federal litigation against the tobacco industry, for which congressional Republicans have tried to withhold funding; the aggressive pursuit of hate crimes and other civil liberty issues; and the expanded funding of federal programs to deter juvenile delinquency and domestic abuse, issues that have become rallying cries for Reno.
Some career officials at Justice are beginning to consider other job prospects. But others say that they are waiting to see what happens and are willing to give the president-elect the benefit of the doubt.