U.S. attorney: Politics and justice

Would Brendan Johnson be the nominee for U.S. attorney for South Dakota without the sponsorship of his father, U.S. Sen. TIm Johnson? Would Scott Abdallah have been in the running for U.S. attorney eight years ago without the support of now-U.S. Sen. John Thune? Would Jim McMahon have become U.S. attorney without the backing of then-Gov. Bill Janklow? Would Kevin Schieffer have been U.S. attorney without the sponsorship of then-U.S. Sen. Larry Pressler?

The job changes hands when the U.S. presidency changes hands. The post of U.S. attorney is a political appointment. We all know it. And we all knew it when congressional Democrats went after the Bush administration over its U.S attorney appointments a few years ago because they were political. And they always will be political. That doesn’t mean a political appointment can’t be a good appointment. Jim McMahon was certainly up to the job. Had Sen. Johnson tapped someone such as former Minnehaha County state’s attorney Dave Nelson, no one would have raised an eyebrow. Actually, there likely would have been widespread praise.

The selection of Brendan Johnson certainly is no better and no worse than the selection of Kevin Schieffer was more than a decade ago. Going into the job, neither one has much professional experience running a large staff of more experienced professionals or being a criminal prosecutor. The key is how a person performs once granted the opportunity.

It is ridiculous for Sen. Johnson and his staff to claim they have been hands-off, however. The applications were sent to Drey Samuelson, the senator’s chief of staff. Two people applied. One was the senator’s son Brendan. Anyone in the South Dakota State Bar who didn’t understand that the fix was in ahead of time was busy representing groundhogs in court. Rather than dancing around the obvious, it would be better if the senator and his staff said the obvious: We think Brendan is up to the job, and who knows better a son’s capabilities and abilities, strengths and weaknesses, than his father? At least the Johnsons didn’t run a fellow Democrat out of the job, as Pressler and Schieffer (who was Pressler’s chief of staff) did to Phil Hogen, who was the U.S. attorney at the time. Bottom line: Brendan Johnson certainly has more experience as a lawyer than Kevin Schieffer did when he was inserted into the post.

An overlooked piece in this story is how neatly all of this fell into place in both political parties. The Republicans had their own set-up. The state Supreme Court asked the Legislature in the 2009 session for several new circuit judgeships much needed in Sioux Falls and Rapid City. One of the new seats on the circuit bench was awarded by Gov. Mike Rounds to state Attorney General Larry Long (who certainly is qualified). Long was facing a forced departure from office as a.g. after 2010 because of term limits. To replace Long, the governor appointed U.S. attorney Marty Jackley (who certainly is qualified) as state attorney general, setting Jackley up to run for the Republican nomination for a.g. next year and making the general election a very tough race for any Democratic challenger. Brendan Johnson, assuming the full U.S. Senate confirms his nomination, will replace Jackley as U.S. attorney.

This entire process had many cogs turning.

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About Bob Mercer

I am a newspaper reporter in Pierre where I cover state government, issues and politics for the Aberdeen American News, the Black Hills Pioneer, the Mitchell Daily Republic, the Pierre Capital Journal, the Rapid City Journal, the Watertown Public Opinion and the Yankton Press & Dakotan. I began covering the Legislature in 1985 and have lived in Pierre since December 1986. I grew up in Wisconsin, worked my way through college, took my first full-time newspapers jobs in Wyoming, and have lived in South Dakota since the summer of 1984 when I moved to Aberdeen to join the American News. I worked for the Rapid City Journal as its state government reporter in Pierre from late 1992 through late 1998. I spent four years as press secretary and a senior aide to Gov. Bill Janklow during his fourth and final term from late 1998 through 2002. I returned to journalism in January 2003 as a self-employed reporter, providing state government coverage to the Mitchell, Watertown, Spearfish, Pierre and, depending on the year, Aberdeen newspapers. In 2008, the Aberdeen American News offered to hire me as full-time member of the AAN staff, with my reports continuing to be available to the Mitchell, Watertown, Spearfish, Pierre, Yankton and Rapid City papers. The new arrangement has been in effect since January 2009 as the seven papers continue their remarkable dedication to their readers and the general public, as the only South Dakota news outlets with a full-time reporter covering state government in Pierre throughout the year. In addition to focusing on the Legislature during the annual winter session and its various activities during the interim periods between sessions, I spend many days throughout the year -- traveling as often necessary -- to cover state government boards and commissions which oversee the state universities, technical institutes, outdoors, water, environment, business, public schools, banking, agriculture, utilities, health care and various other areas of public interest. I purposely don't register to vote because of my profession; the last time I recall voting in a presidential election was the first time, 1976, when I had just turned 18. I think I voted for Jimmy Carter over Gerald Ford. Make of that what you want, just don't make much of it.

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