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Former US Attorney Barbara McQuade served justice, not politics

Mar 16, 2017

With considerable fanfare, the Trump administration last week ordered every remaining Obama-appointed federal prosecutor, formally known as U.S. District Attorneys, to resign.

They will now gradually be replaced by new Republican appointees. Michigan has two federal prosecutors. Patrick Miles, who was in charge of the western district, announced his resignation in January and left the same day President Obama did.

But Barbara McQuade, the U.S. District Attorney in Detroit, stayed on the job. And by common consent, she did a superb job during the more than six years she was federal prosecutor.

She and her staff masterfully exposed former Detroit Mayor Kwame Kilpatrick’s many crimes and won a conviction that will keep him in federal prison for at least another 20 years.

McQuade also successfully prosecuted the famous and bizarre would-be “underwear bomber,” and sent the contemptible Dr. Farid Fata to jail for forty-five years, after an investigation revealed he intentionally misdiagnosed hundreds of patients and billed them for dangerous treatments they didn’t need.

She was even-handed, non-partisan, and was universally hailed as a class act. The deeply conservative editorial page editor of the Detroit News urged President Trump to keep her on.

But the administration apparently never considered that, and unceremoniously fired her last week with all the rest.

Well, I was never worried about Barbara McQuade’s future, and indeed, within days, she accepted an offer to join the law school faculty at the University of Michigan.

Before that, a number of listeners urged me to ask McQuade to run for something, usually governor. I wouldn’t presume to do that. Americans often think that if someone is a success at something, they are bound to automatically be a great political leader.

McQuade is a brilliant prosecutor. Were she to run for the Michigan Supreme Court, I would happily support her.

But I have no idea how she would function in a partisan political world. She might well be a compelling candidate and an effective executive. Even if so, I don’t think we should assume that would be the best use of her considerable talents.

However, there is a bigger issue here. Whatever your political leanings, it’s clear that the Trump administration has just impeded justice in this nation by firing all federal prosecutors en masse without having replacements ready. This administration is far behind most at this stage in terms of filling federal jobs.

Some of these critical law enforcement positions may not be filled for months. That’s a matter of managerial incompetence. But beyond that --should these be political jobs at all?

Is there a Republican way to deal with fraud, tax evasion and murder that’s different from a Democratic way?

There shouldn’t be. Effective immediately, we should adopt the philosophy that federal prosecutors should be beyond politics.

Yes, many will eventually resign or retire, and I have no problem with any president filling those vacancies with competent members of his own party. But regardless of the result of any election, law enforcement shouldn’t be seen as the spoils.

Barbara McQuade said when she was appointed prosecutor, President Obama told her if her loyalty to him ever conflicted with the Constitution, she should choose the Constitution, every time.

Here’s hoping every district attorney in the country feels precisely the same way.

Jack Lessenberry is Michigan Radio’s Senior Political Analyst. Views expressed in his essays are his own and do not necessarily reflect those of Michigan Radio, its management or the station licensee, The University of Michigan.