The Fitzgerald Factor

People talk about political corruption in Illinois as being unusually bad. And perhaps it is. But part of the story in Illinois has been that the local US Attorney is unusually good. And that itself was part of a weird confluence of circumstances. The tradition in the United States is to treat US Attorney jobs as a kind of patronage appointment. Basically, under a Republican administration states that have a Republican Senator have their US Attorneys picked by the local Senator or Senators. And under a Democratic administration it’s the Democratic Senators. In 2001, we had a Republican President and there was a Republican Senator from Illinois, Peter Fitzgerald. If Fitzgerald were doing his job in the usual way, he would have picked a lawyer who was somewhat respected and also tied into the local party machine. The kind of guy who wouldn’t launch a major corruption investigation of the incumbent Republican governor.

Instead, Fitzgerald insisted on appointing an out-of-state professional prosecutor from New York named Patrick Fitzgerald who had no ties to the GOP or Illinois or especially the Illinois GOP. Senator Fitzgerald was under no particular pressure to do this. In fact, he was under pressure from within his own party to do the reverse. But he went with the other Fitzgerald, and then he decided not to run for re-election and cited the lack of support from his own party as one of the reasons. That lack of support was especially bad for Senator Fitzgerald since on the issue he was a pretty hard-core conservative.

A ton of consequential things have sprung out from Fitzgerald’s decision to bring in Fitzgerald for basically quirky reasons. But it’s a reminder, I think, that the usual way of doing these appointments is pretty inadequate. Much better to look for serious professionals and see what kinds of corruption turn up elsewhere.