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Is Ronald Machen the best available candidate to be the U.S. Attorney in D.C.?

Dec 24, 2009 Is Ronald Machen the best available candidate to be the U.S. Attorney in D.C.?

Photo from website of U.S. District Court (W.D. Mi.).

A United States Attorney is the chief lawyer overseeing virtually all criminal and civil trial litigation in a federal trial court district in which the federal government is a party, as well as subsequent appeals. That is a tremendously powerful position. A United States Attorney’s power carries a vast potential to cause much harm, and at least some possibility to do some good along the way.

The United States Attorney for the District of Columbia wields particularly immense power when considering that a vast number of national security and government agency cases are handled in the United States District Court for the District of Columbia, including the secret FISA court. The United States Attorney’s Office in the District of Columbia also handles the vast majority of prosecutions in the District of Columbia Superior Court — except for the drunk driving prosecutions and various low-level misdemeanor prosecutions handled by the D.C. Attorney General’s Office — with the District of Columbia still being treated heavily as a colony that does not choose its own trial and appellate judges, prosecutes only a very small list of criminal case types that get filed in Superior Court, cannot get its laws passed without the United States Congress first deciding whether to bar putting such laws into effect, and has no Congressional representation other than a non-voting representative in the House of Representatives who gets some voting authority only by the grace of the House members and not from the Constitution.

With the foregoing backdrop, today President Obama nominated the District of Columbia’s new United States Attorney, as well as U.S. Attorneys to six other districts in various parts of the nation. President Obama’s nominee for the District of Columbia’s U.S. Attorney is Ronald C. Machen. On paper, Mr. Machen seems to have similar credentials to many a U.S. Attorney over the years. He graduated from some of most difficult schools to get admitted to: Stanford University undergraduate and from Harvard Law School. He held a coveted federal appellate clerkship. He is a partner with one of D.C.’s toughest law firms to get hired at. He has both prosecuted and defended criminal cases, although his defense work seems limited to the well-heeled corporate clientele that usually are able to afford a large law firm, unless he has engaged in any blue collar pro bono criminal defense, which is not addressed in his law firm biography. Would I have accepted the same opportunities if offered to me? Yes, except for the prosecutorial part, and with the hope that I still would have had the will to become my own boss despite the many advantages of working at a full-service large law firm, including having first-rate support staff and excellent attorneys available for teamwork. Therefore, I am not chiding Mr. Machen for his resume, but do wonder if he is the best available candidate, as I address further below.

Like many other large law firm partners who take political appointments in the federal government, Mr. Machen likely will return to his current law firm after leaving the U.S. Attorney position, ready to bring even more client dollars to his law firm through the clout and experience of being D.C.’s chief U.S. Attorney. 

Mr. Machen has been out of law school for sixteen years, with two of those years clerking for a federal appellate judge. Like so many of history’s United States Attorneys, his resume is long on government and large law firm ivory tower experience, and short on representing the average person, although I know many prosecutors claim that they represent crime victims. Of President Obama’s thousands of choices for D.C.’s U.S. Attorney in a city heavily saturated by lawyers — including many excellent lawyers who have successfully defended many blue collar criminal clients over the years — was Mr. Machen really his best option? Apparently following former president Bill Clinton’s approach, President Obama chose among a handful (three) of candidates submitted by D.C.’s Congressional Delegate Eleanor Holmes Norton, who acted on the advice of a seventeen-member commission.

Delegate Norton last month submitted a proposed bill to create a D.C. District Attorney’s Office, to take over many of the local court prosecution functions of the U.S. Attorney’s office. Will Mr. Machen and President Obama support such a move? Jon Katz

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