As President Obama ponders whom he will nominate as Eric Holder’s successor as attorney general, he should consider President Ford’s appointment in 1975 of Edward Levi to head the nation’s Department of Justice.
Four decades ago, the United States was reeling from Watergate. President Nixon’s first attorney general, John Mitchell, was on his way to federal prison while Ford’s pardon of Nixon remained controversial.
In this difficult environment, President Ford reached outside his official and personal circles to appoint as attorney general a preeminent legal scholar, Edward Levi.
Levi was a distinguished law professor, an accomplished dean of the University of Chicago Law School, and the widely-admired president of the University of Chicago. In a contentious political setting, Edward Levi was confirmed as attorney general by a voice vote in the United States Senate. Everyone understood that Ford had gone beyond politics as usual to choose an outstanding attorney general capable of restoring confidence in the Department of the Justice.
Ed Levi didn’t need the job. But the United States needed Ed Levi.
Levi’s tenure as attorney general did not disappoint. When Levi left the Justice Department at the end of the Ford Administration, the department’s reputation had been restored in large measure because of Levi’s integrity, professionalism, and independence.
President Obama should strive for an Ed Levi-type appointee for his second attorney general.
Many fine individuals are being mentioned to replace Holder. Most of these individuals are excellent lawyers and, under other circumstances, would be good leaders for the Department of Justice. But the United States today, like the United States in 1975, requires more than a good lawyer as attorney general. It requires someone with Ed Levi’s gravitas.
Some might retort that nothing comparable to Watergate has transpired in recent years. True. But we are a nation badly fractured on political lines. Legitimate concerns have been raised about the recent performance of the Department of Justice. In this difficult atmosphere, it is vital to reaffirm that the Department of Justice is an institution of law, not just another hyper-partisan political arena.
Like President Ford, President Obama should look beyond his official family and his circle of acquaintances to find an attorney general whose prime credentials are professional, not political. Holder’s replacement should be perceived as an independent attorney general who doesn’t need the job.
This heavyweight appointee could, like Ed Levi, come from academia or could come from the private sector. Another potential source for such an attorney general is the judiciary. Among those meeting the Ed Levi-test would be such personages as Justice Sandra O’Connor and Judges Richard Posner, Jon Newman and Jose Cabranes of the U.S. Court of Appeals.
President Ford’s historical reputation improves with each passing year. His pardon of Richard Nixon, widely condemned at the time, is now seen as an act of statesmanship which helped to move the United States beyond Watergate. Ford’s appointment of Edward Levi as attorney general was similarly an act of high statesmanship which reaffirmed America’s commitment to the rule of law. President Obama should make a comparably outstanding appointment for his second attorney general.