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Burden of Proof

Democratic National Convention: What Might Al Gore Look for in an Attorney General?

Aired August 15, 2000 - 12:30 p.m. ET



WILLIAM J. CLINTON, PRESIDENT OF THE UNITED STATES: My fellow Americans, the future of our country is now in your hands. You must think hard, feel deeply and choose wisely. And remember, whenever you think about me, keep putting people first.

RICHARD THORNBURGH, FMR. U.S. ATTORNEY GENERAL, BUSH ADMIN.: There's no cut-and-dried job description when you review during the last century the persons who were appointed attorneys general. They vary from the president's campaign managers to top law enforcement officials to the president's personal lawyer, in some instances, judges, academics.


ROGER COSSACK, CO-HOST: Today on BURDEN OF PROOF: If the Democratic Party holds on to the White House, what type of changes could be seen at the U.S. Justice Department, and what might Al Gore look for in an attorney general?

ANNOUNCER: This is BURDEN OF PROOF, live from the Democratic National Convention in Los Angeles, with Roger Cossack and Greta Van Susteren.

COSSACK: Hello and welcome to a special edition of BURDEN OF PROOF.

Last week, Vice President Al Gore made his first high-level personnel decision with the appointment of Joseph Lieberman as his running mate. But if Gore is elected president this fall, he'll have an entire cabinet to assemble before taking the oath of office.

GRETA VAN SUSTEREN, CO-HOST: The chief law enforcement duties fall into the hands of the United States attorney general. The man or woman selected to this post would be replacing Attorney General Janet Reno while the department is amid several investigations.

COSSACK: And joining us today here in Los Angeles is Andrea Sheridan Ordin, a former U.S. attorney. And to my left, former Acting Solicitor General Walter Dellinger.

VAN SUSTEREN: Also joining us today in Los Angeles, Bart Williams, a former assistant United States attorney.

Before we get into the discussion about the Justice Department, how it might appear if Al Gore is elected president, Bart, let me ask you a question, bring you back to last night. Last night, we had a lockdown here at the Staples Center. We had -- rubber bullets were used by the LAPD, pepper spray, the -- it was almost surreal coming out of this place last night. Do you think the LAPD did a good job, only 10 arrests?

BART WILLIAMS, FMR. ASSISTANT U.S. ATTORNEY: Well, I think the best thing about it is that nobody was seriously injured. I mean, that's the bottom line to it. They always face very difficult decisions. It's really difficult to tell whether they're acting too quickly or acting to slowly. I'm sure there are going to be a lot of people who are going to say that they acted a little bit precipitously last night. But at the same time, the police department didn't hurt anybody seriously, and I think that's the bottom line.

VAN SUSTEREN: You know, there's always that sort of clash between the First Amendment right to protest and, of course, crossing that line to when you commit crime and when it's appropriate to arrest.

Walter, let me now turn to the topic that we intended to talk about today, and that's the Justice Department, how it might appear to be in an Al Gore administration. Let me first talk about a case like Microsoft. In the event that Al Gore replaces President Clinton as the president, do you think there'll be any change in a case, an antitrust case, like Microsoft? This is an ongoing case.

WALTER DELLINGER, FMR. ACTING SOLICITOR GENERAL: No, I wouldn't think so. I wouldn't think on a basic antitrust matter like that that there would be a change. I mean, the more interesting question would be whether, if Governor Bush won the election, there would be a change in Microsoft. And I'm even now convinced for the first time that the Supreme Court won't hear the Microsoft case now because the court will be concerned about the fact that the Justice Department might change their position between the filing of the briefs this fall and a decision in the spring if there were a change of administrations.

But I don't see an issue like that changing. But I think there'll be substantial changes in the Justice Department under a Gore administration. It won't be the Clinton administration. I think there'll be a completely new senior staff, a new attorney general, a new deputy attorney general, a new assistant attorneys general, a new solicitor general. I think, across the board, you'll see a lot of fresh faces in the Justice Department, some of whom will have had experience in the Justice Department in this administration, but I think it will be a fresh look.

COSSACK: Andrea, I just want to -- you were a former U.S. attorney here in the Central District of California...


COSSACK: ... and you obviously, then, worked with attorney generals. Does it make a difference who the attorney general is in terms of policies?

ORDIN: Oh, it does, it definitely does. And it makes more of a difference, I think, who is attorney general than who is president and who is vice president. The choice of attorney general is absolutely crucial. He or she sets the tone for the whole department, and, if done right, also sets the tone for law enforcement in the state and for civil prosecution, working with the state attorney generals, for example.

And one of the things I think will be very interesting, the fact that if it's Gore-Lieberman, Joe Lieberman was one of the best attorneys general, state attorneys general in Connecticut, doing very exciting things in antitrust and consumer and environment. So I think a Gore-Lieberman ticket will have a lot to do...

DELLINGER: I would think, if I can just add a footnote to that, that I think Vice President Lieberman, if he is, would have more interest in the Justice Department than has been traditional for vice presidents just because he does have experience as a state attorney general. And the Vice President Gore's chief of staff, Charles Burson, was also an outstanding attorney general in Tennessee. He argued -- I've heard people at the Supreme Court say he's the best state attorney general they've heard arguing a case at the Supreme Court in the last 25 years.

So, around the vice president -- would it be Gore -- will be a vice president and one of his top people who have been state attorneys general, and that's a good balance. You know, Janet Reno had been county attorney. And as you look at different models for what you would like in an attorney general, some people like the distant figure removed from the president, the way Professor Ed Levi was for Gerald Ford, or the way Janet Reno was for Bill Clinton, someone that the president had not met the day before he named her. Others, like Griffin Bell, who was attorney general under President Carter, think that it's best that the attorney general be someone who's close to the president.

VAN SUSTEREN: Like Ed Meese and Ronald Reagan, almost.

DELLINGER: Ed Meese and Ronald Reagan or Bobby Kennedy and John F. Kennedy.

VAN SUSTEREN: Can't get ANY closer than that.

DELLINGER: Or Griffin Bell. Griffin Bell's point when he was attorney general under Carter is that he could tell Carter no without blinking an eye because he was close to him, and yet he drew upon the career staff of the Department of Justice.

VAN SUSTEREN: Bart, does that suggest, then, that it's not really the party so much as the person as the attorney general? I mean, that you can have -- you know, the fact that we're going to have a new administration; if it's a new Democratic administration, that it could be profoundly different because we just have a different person there? WILLIAMS: I think it's both. I mean, it's the change in party and the change in the person. For example, under the current attorney general, Attorney General Reno, she has a passionate issue that she tries to cover, which is child -- children's rights, and you've seen task forces around the United States that have sprung up to protect children's rights in the area of deadbeat dads, in the area of child pornography. Those are things that she believes in passionately, and those are things that, frankly, might fall away, particularly if there's a change in party because those are very important to her.

COSSACK: What about the federal death penalty, something that a lot of discussion about? Under a new attorney general, would that attorney general have some input into that kind of policy?

WILLIAMS: I think the death penalty issue is so -- such a hot button...

VAN SUSTEREN: And the fact that Al Gore is in favor of the death penalty, I can't imagine that his attorney general would step out of line on that issue.

COSSACK: Well, that's my point. Should an attorney general step out of line on that issue and have some input and say perhaps this is not a good policy or we should review it?

WILLIAMS: I think they have input in terms of the application for a particular set of facts, but I don't think that they necessarily should be saying there should or should not be a death penalty in the United States.

VAN SUSTEREN: All right, we're going to take a break. Can you hold that thought for one second? We'll be right back with more on our discussion about how the Justice Department may change if Al Gore is elected president. Stay with us.


The Texas Board of Pardons and Parole voted unanimously yesterday in favor of pardoning Roy Wayne Criner because of DNA evidence that clears him of rape. Gov. George W. Bush is expected to sign the pardon today.




CLINTON: My hair's a little grayer, my wrinkles are a little deeper, but with the same optimism and hope I brought to the work I love so eight years ago, I want you to know, my heart is filled with gratitude.


VAN SUSTEREN: After eight years of the Clinton presidency, Vice President Al Gore is hoping to step into the presidential spotlight. If Gore is elected this November, one of his early tasks will be the nomination of an attorney general.

Walter, I cut you off before we went to break. You wanted to say something.

DELLINGER: I think both Governor Bush and Vice President Gore are not opposed to the death penalty, but one important role for the attorney general is the attorney general personally decides, in every case, whether the federal government will seek the death penalty, and has a review panel, and I think that would be true under either administration.

COSSACK: Andrea, what kind of person should be the attorney general? I mean, do you want an independent thinker? do you want a team player? do you want someone -- a combination of the two?

SHERIDAN ORDIN: You want everything, but I think tough-minded is very important. A sense of integrity, a centered person, because one of the most important things that the attorney general can do is say no to some of the most powerful clients in the world, not only the president of the United States, but the heads of the agencies, because you are handling the litigation, the civil litigation, in matters of great importance, where very serious decisions are made day in and day out.

Many people forget how much of the work of the attorney general is in the civil side. So you want someone who has a broad sense of the world, as well as broad sense of law. And it can come from anywhere, as you heard the Attorney General Thornburgh, it has been a very broad group of people, but it is the personal quality I think of intellect and toughness of character.

VAN SUSTEREN: Walter, give me a little history lesson. I mean, how much contact, typically, or maybe you have to look back at the different administrations, does the president have with the attorney general? It is just like, you are hired and that's it? or do they work together?

DELLINGER: It varies enormously, I think, where the president does not have a prior relationship with the attorney general, Gerald Ford and Dean -- Ed Levy, or Bill Clinton and Janet Reno not a lot of regular contact at that level.

Griffin Bell went to see -- called President Carter every morning or President Carter called Griffin Bell because Griffin Bell had been his personal attorney.

And you know, it is useful in some ways for the president to know the attorney general because the attorney general is over there with career lawyers. I would guess 97 percent of the lawyers do not turn over in the Department of Justice with the change of administration, if you include the U.S. attorney's offices. And a great source of strength in the Department of Justice is the continuity over time.

VAN SUSTEREN: But the attorney general is not the president's lawyer?


VAN SUSTEREN: What is the job?

DELLINGER: The attorney general is the lawyer for the United States of America, the United States is her client, not the president.

Now, the president in a unitary executive like we have, the president is everything. That is the president can counterman the attorney general on any decision, just as he can the secretary of defense or the secretary of health and human services. But the attorney general's obligation is to represent the United States, and to tell the president what her or his view is of what is the best way to represent the United States.

COSSACK: All right. Is there a tension between the attorney general and the president? one being a political animal that has to answer to the voters, and the attorney general, who is the lawyer, and should be in some ways in fact always independent.

WILLIAMS: Sure there is. I think there is tension and, just as Walter was saying, that's why it is so important for there to be a dialogue between the president and the attorney general because there are some of those decisions that are very difficult decisions, such as some of the ones that have faced Attorney General Reno, where they have to stand alone. The attorney general has to make very difficult ones.

COSSACK: So if there is an inherent conflict, if you will, who should win?

WILLIAMS: Well, that's a tough one. I guess, constitutionally speaking, as Walter just said, the president of the United States can trump the attorney general on many of the important issues, and so that's who wins ultimately.


DELLINGER: But a wise president will understand that he shouldn't overrule the attorney general, except in rare instances. So I think...

VAN SUSTEREN: Not to mention it would be a horrible brouhaha politically if it came out that they were feuding over something.

DELLINGER: Well, the presidents have overruled attorneys general, for example, on what position to argue in court, that has happened in every administration I know, or resolve disputes. But it is also important to realize that when the Justice Department tells the White House, no, you can't do something, generally the president doesn't overrule it.

And in every administration, not just in this administration, but in every administration I know, both under President Bush and President Reagan, as well as under President Clinton, the legal counsel of the Department of Justice has told the White House, no, on matters they really care about, and you can't do it, and that is tough. And that's in both administrations.

VAN SUSTEREN: Andrea, what's the difference between -- is there a different criteria between what a Governor Bush, if president, would look for in an attorney general and Vice President Al Gore, if he were president, in selecting attorney general? do they have different sort of criteria, do you think?

SHERIDAN ORDIN: It's hard for me to say personally because of course I don't have any knowledge of...

VAN SUSTEREN: But because of their political positions.

SHERIDAN ORDIN: I would think a Governor Bush would think of the attorney general more narrowly, in terms of the criminal law enforcement and working with local law enforcement, and someone who is tough on the crime issues. Where I would think in a Gore-Lieberman administration, they would see a much broader role for the attorney general in all of those civil areas, civil rights, environment, some of those other areas where traditionally the Democratic administrations have bench much more focused.

You know, in that independence area, the other area that is so important, is the solicitor general because even when judge...

VAN SUSTEREN: Which is the greatest job of all.

SHERIDAN ORDIN: Greatest job.

VAN SUSTEREN: I would take that one.

SHERIDAN ORDIN: Even when Judge Bell was so close to the president and did talk every day, he protected that Department of Justice and its independence very strongly, and particularly the independence of the solicitor general, because it was time of Bacchi (ph) decision and various other areas. And he protected vigorously the Department of Justice independence, and the...

COSSACK: Let me just take a quick break here because when we come back, the next attorney general of the United States could set the tone for federal law enforcement in the next four years, and the course of pending investigations inside the Reno Justice Department. Let's talk about that when we come back. Stay with us.


Q: A federal judge has blocked a warden from taking away inmates' cell keys as a low-security women's prison based on the appeal of which convict?

A: Sara James Moore, who is serving a life sentence for attempting to assassinate President Gerald Ford in 1975.



COSSACK: If the Democratic Party retains the Oval Office next January, a new cabinet will reflect the ideologies of the new administration. Included in those cabinet posts will be the chief law enforcement officer of the country, the U.S. attorney general.

Bart, let's talk about the war on drugs. We have more people in prison per capita than either Iran or Russia; we have 80 percent of the 1997 drug arrests were for possession; there are more African- Americans in jail per their percentage in this population; the war on drugs could arguably be called a failure. What impact would the attorney general have in reviewing that and stopping these arrests?

WILLIAMS: Well, I think the attorney general has a great deal of impact on just what crimes are prosecuted in the drug area. For example, back in 1992, when the Clinton administration took over, there was clearly sort of a diminution in the focus on the so-called "war on drugs," in the sense that some of the guidelines for how many -- what weight of drugs had to be involved before you went with a federal case were raised so that there would be fewer cases.

There's a tremendous impact and power that the attorney general has in that area, in terms of the focus. I think that's one of the biggest distinctions between the Democrats and Republicans in this particular election.

DELLINGER: I think, Andrea, there's a larger distinction I agree what you said on drug policy, I don't think is going to be -- I think the difference is going to be rather small. I think a Gore administration will have a much broader agenda for a Justice Department, in terms of environmental protection, clean air, and clean water, freedom of access to clinics for women's reproductive services, civil rights, disability laws. So you will see a much broader focus, where I think -- I would guess a Governor Bush Justice Department would be more narrowly focused on criminal law, crime control issues.

VAN SUSTEREN: Andrea, let me ask you a quick question before we run out of time. There are ongoing investigations at Justice Department into campaign finance, including the vice president. If the vice president becomes the president appoints the attorney general, we don't have any independent counsel statute, we are suddenly in a position of sending the fox out to guard the chicken coup. What does a new attorney general do with these ongoing investigations? how do we handle it?

SHERIDAN ORDIN: Going Back to the other question that's where you need the sense of integrity , tough-mindedness, so that whatever that attorney general does would be looked at and understood by the public.

COSSACK: Andrea, isn't that a little hopeful in the sense that we are asking this attorney general, who is appointed by the president, no matter who that president may be.

VAN SUSTEREN: What happens, Walter? DELLINGER: Look, the attorney general doesn't run an investigation, a criminal investigation. The public integrity section in the Department of Justice put Dan Rostenkowski, who was the most important person in the government to President Clinton's health care plan, indicted and prosecuted and put him, and sent him to jail.

COSSACK: But not appointed by Dan Rostenkowski.

VAN SUSTEREN: But aren't these different times, Walter, in that everyone is suspicious. I mean, whether it is justified or not, I mean that is the problem.

DELLINGER: The Department of Justice, for decades, has investigated leading figures in both parties under both parties have investigated figures in both parties, and the career lawyers, 97 percent of whom will remain in the department, they are career lawyers who are in charge of these investigations, are not going to be taken...

COSSACK: But appointed people are the ones that are going to make the decision that these career lawyers suggest.

VAN SUSTEREN: Andrea, do you think the American people will be satisfied? I mean, there are going to people unhappy either way. I mean, is that the best solution, having the department -- the justice -- of public integrity do it?

SHERIDAN ORDIN: It may not be the best solution. I used to think that the independent counsel was the right solution, until recent events proved me wrong. But there is somewhere in between. In long-term, I think we should look to a proposal that was Ben Civiletti's (ph), in chairing an ABA committee, for a separate, but governmental, independent counsel that would take care of these things.

VAN SUSTEREN: The problem is, you would hear me squawk because I would say, OK, you are create another branch of government. But I get the last word because that's all the time we have for today. Thanks to our guests and thank you for watching.

Today on CNN's "TALKBACK LIVE," as the commander in chief hands over the baton to his vice president, can Al Gore capture the Clinton magic? That's at 3:00 p.m. Eastern time, noon Pacific.

COSSACK: And tomorrow on BURDEN OF PROOF: the Supreme Court is up for grabs. How would it look under a Gore presidency? the future of the U.S. Supreme Court. That's tomorrow, at 12:30 Eastern time, on another special edition of BURDEN OF PROOF live from Los Angeles. We'll see you then.



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