published Sunday, May 30th, 2010

Past and present U.S. attorneys reflect on job


by Monica Mercer

As President Barack Obama's pick for U.S. attorney awaits Senate confirmation as the top federal law enforcement official in Eastern Tennessee, those who've held the job agree it is public opinion and the current state of affairs -- not politics -- that ultimately direct a U.S. attorney's priorities.

Speaking from his chambers at the federal courthouse in Chattanooga, U.S. District Judge Harry S. "Sandy" Mattice recalled being confirmed as the U.S. attorney for Eastern Tennessee just one month after 9/11.

"Obviously, the overriding No. 1 priority (out of Washington became) counterterrorism," Judge Mattice said. "But prior to 9/11, counterterrorism was probably not in the top 10 (of priorities) of the Department of Justice."

The terrorist attacks on Sept. 11, 2001, which occurred while former President George Bush was in office, changed the course of federal law enforcement across the country, Judge Mattice added, and it had nothing to do with partisan politics.

Defense attorney Bill Killian, of Jasper, Tenn., a Democrat, became President Obama's nominee for U.S. attorney here on May 20.

The president also has nominated Jerry Martin, of Nashville, to be the top federal prosecutor for Middle Tennessee and Edward L. Stanton III of Memphis to the post in West Tennessee, the Associated Press reported.

It is unclear when the U.S. Senate will confirm the nominations. Mr. Killian has declined until then to talk about how he might carry out the job.

While the country's 93 U.S. attorneys help carry out the Department of Justice's mission, Judge Mattice said national initiatives do not necessarily translate into everyday work at the local level.

The bulk of federal crime in Eastern Tennessee, for example, continues to be the result of drugs and guns, which have remained a local prosecution priority for years despite changes in U.S. attorney leadership.

"Counterterrorism (work) came more in the form of investigations," Judge Mattice said. Rarely did it translate into criminal prosecutions in the Eastern federal district of Tennessee, he said.

Russ Dedrick, a Republican and current U.S. attorney for the district, is a 38-year veteran of the DOJ who was nominated under former President George W. Bush when Judge Mattice became a federal judge.

WHAT IS A U.S. ATTORNEY?

A U.S. attorney is the chief federal law enforcement officer of the country within a particular jurisdiction. U.S. attorneys prosecute all criminal cases brought by the federal government, prosecute and defend all civil cases in which the United States is a party, and collect debts owed to the federal government such as unpaid taxes and student loans. They exercise "wide discretion in the use of resources to further priorities of the local jurisdictions and needs of their communities," according to the Department of Justice's web site.

Mr. Dedrick has been the boss in the district's most important federal cases, including 2008's prosecution of former Hamilton County Sheriff Billy Long for drug crimes. He will retire June 30.

He said he rarely has encountered partisan politics in his mission to enforce federal law, but understands why a new administration always means a fresh crop of U.S. attorneys who belong to the same party.

"Originally, the U.S. attorney was the personal representative of the president in all the territories," Mr. Dedrick said. "The president needs people who support him, and that's reflective of the intent to change U.S. attorneys."

Mr. Dedrick said the transitions from one U.S. attorney to another over the years in Eastern Tennessee have been easy and mostly uneventful, reflecting again his strong opinion that partisan politics is not a reality in the U.S. attorney's office.

"I always tell people politics has brought you to job and politics will take you away, but politics has no place in the job," Mr. Dedrick said.

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