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Monday, January 5, 2009

The Future of Justice in North Alabama--And Beyond

If we have learned anything over the past eight years of George W. Bush's reign, it is this: The appointment of U.S. attorneys is a hugely important decision.

Your district can wind up with a noble public servant who truly serves the interests of justice. Or you can wind up with a political hack--someone like Bush appointees Alice Martin (Northern District of Alabama) and Leura Canary (Middle District of Alabama).

It looks like the new U.S. attorney for the Northern District of Alabama, based in Birmingham, will be one of two people--Joyce White Vance or James R. Sturdivant.

Vance and Sturdivant appear to have solid resumes, but I wonder if our process for selecting U.S. attorneys could stand some tweaking--both in Alabama and elsewhere. More on that in a moment.

The Birmingham News reports that four lawyers applied for the position by the December 31 deadline. Joining Vance and Sturdivant are Glenda Freeman and Michele Nicrosi. Freeman has been a lawyer with the Legal Aid Society of Birmingham, and Nicrosi is a Mobile-based lawyer who applied for the top jobs in all three Alabama districts. Neither Freeman nor Nicrosi responded to efforts to reach them, and it appears that Vance and Sturdivant have the credentials and the clout to make it a two-person race.

Vance is the wife of Jefferson County Circuit Judge Robert Vance Jr., and her father-in-law was U.S. Circuit Judge Robert Vance, who was killed in a mail-bomb attack in 1989.

Joyce Vance, 48, has worked with the U.S. attorney's office in Birmingham since 1991 and has been chief of the appellate division since 2005.

Sturdivant, 46, was an assistant U.S. attorney in Birmingham from 1992 to '95 and has been a judge advocate general in the U.S. Army. He has been in private practice, with the Birmingham firm of Sirote & Permutt, since 1995.

U.S. Rep. Artur Davis (D-AL) created a panel that will forward names to the White House for consideration.

Whoever gets the position is bound to be a major improvement over the abominable Alice Martin. I've got a dead tree stump in my backyard that would be an improvement over Alice Martin. I picked some lint out of my drain the other day that would be an improvement over Alice Martin. I found a dust bunny in our living room that . . . well, you get the idea.

No one asked me to serve on Artur Davis' panel. And I find it a bit alarming that his group appears to include only lawyers, judges, and law-school deans. Has anyone thought of getting citizen input, perhaps talking to non-lawyers who have seen how our "justice" system really works? Why is this decision going to be made with input only from the legal establishment?

Here are some questions that would be asked if a Legal Schnauzer served on Davis' committee:

* How much dysfunction is present in the U.S. attorney's office after eight years of misrule by Alice Martin? How bad is morale? Who is the best person to turn the office into a legitimate crime-fighting unit? Who is the best person to get rid of the Martin loyalists that probably want to hang around?

* Alice Martin clearly has based prosecutions on political and racial considerations. Who is the best person to reverse that despicable practice?

* Speaking of racial considerations, isn't it interesting that wrongdoing under Martin's reign seemed to occur only in areas where minorities were in positions of power? Isn't it curious that public corruption seemed to occur only in areas like the Jefferson County Commission, the Birmingham Mayor's Office, and majority-black legislative districts? Who is best to ensure that future investigations and prosecutions will be race and class blind? Who has the guts to look into possible wrongdoing in suburban cities like Hoover, Mountain Brook, Homewood, and Vestavia Hills? Are such places immune from public corruption? Who has the guts to look into grotesque wrongdoing in majority-white enclaves like Shelby County?

* Speaking of Shelby County, it's a running joke among many lawyers in metro Birmingham that the place is a cesspool of corruption. Who has the cojones to go into Columbiana and clean out the joint, introducing perp walks and orange jump suits to any number of public officials who need to become acquainted with them?

* Personal experience, and public records, indicate that UAB is infected with an ugly brand of greed and corruption. This ugliness almost certainly extends to the University of Alabama Board of Trustees and Chancellor's Office, based in Tuscaloosa. Who has the guts to take on the powerful interests who have corrupted higher education in Alabama?

All of these questions lead us to one big question about the appointment of U.S. attorneys: Is it really a good idea to have federal prosecutors be long-time residents of the districts where they will be working?

Consider Vance and Sturdivant. Both appear to have deep roots in the Birmingham community. But is that a good quality for a federal prosecutor to have? I would argue that it is not.

Sturdivant obviously has deep ties to one of Birmingham's most prominent law firms, Sirote & Permutt. Before being appointed to the bench by then Governor Don Siegelman, Vance's husband was with the Birmingham firm of Johnston Barton Proctor & Powell.

Between that experience and being a judge, Robert Vance is familiar with every law firm of any size in the metro area. He probably has professional and personal buddies at firms all over the city--and he knows who stands to win or lose if certain clients were to get into hot water with the federal government.

Could that pose conflicts for Joyce White Vance? Sure looks like it from here.

And consider Sturdivant's ties to Sirote & Permutt. I know a number of lawyers at the firm, for example, have ties to UAB. Would that color Sturdivant's decisions regarding possible investigations at an institution that clearly is infected with pockets of corruption, probably involving federal law? My guess is that it would.

And here's a sticky question: What if a Birmingham law firm itself is involved in activity that violates federal law? Would Vance or Sturdivant be willing to examine the dirty laundry that undoubtedly exists at any number of Birmingham law firms?

Vance and Sturdivant appear to be quality folks. But are the citizens of the Northern District of Alabama best served by having a federal prosecutor who has lived here for many years?

I'm not familiar with the rules that govern the nomination process for U.S. attorneys. It's possible that nominees must come from states where they would serve. But if such a rule exists, I wonder if it needs to be reconsidered.

Would the interests of justice be better served if Alabama's three U.S. attorneys came from, say, Oregon, Maine, and Iowa? Would the interests of justice be better served if qualified candidates like Vance and Sturdivant served not in their home state of Alabama but in, say, Arizona or New Hampshire, or Virginia?

I think the answer to both questions is yes.

I'm sure some would argue that, as a practical matter, such a setup would cause some qualified candidates to reject opportunities to serve as federal prosecutors. Many candidates might not want to uproot their homes and families to serve in a government assignment that is only going to last four or eight years.

That's a legitimate argument. But I think questions should be raised about a process for selecting federal prosecutors that seems to inherently present conflicts of interest.

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