Letten Not Acting

What's in an adjective? Plenty, if you're the U.S. Attorney.


For months now, The Times-Picayune and local television news media have consistently and erroneously referred to local U.S. Attorney Jim Letten with the adjective "acting," federal courthouse attorneys insist.

There are actually three ways to become U.S. Attorney, say attorneys: by presidential appointment or by appointment of the U.S. Attorney General, and then after 120 days by the federal court. Since George W. Bush took office, most of the Louisiana media speculation has focused on Bush's choice to replace Eddie Jordan as the U.S. Attorney for the Eastern District of Louisiana. Jordan received a presidential appointment to U.S. Attorney in 1994. He resigned April 16, 2001, and has since been elected Orleans Parish District Attorney. On April 20, 2001, U.S. Attorney General John Ashcroft appointed Jim Letten, a career federal prosecutor, to replace Jordan.

Title 28 U.S. Code Sec. 546 states that the U.S. Attorney General may appoint a U.S. Attorney when the position is vacant. The only exception to the law reads, "The Attorney General shall not appoint as United States attorney a person to whose appointment by the President to that office the Senate refused to give advice and consent." The law also limits the Attorney General's appointment to 120 days, after which time the federal district court must fill the vacancy for U.S. Attorney.

And so it went: Judge Edith Brown Clement, chief judge for the U.S. District Court of the Eastern District of Louisiana, appointed Letten as U.S. Attorney for the EDL on Aug. 20, 2001. Letten may serve as a court-appointed U.S. Attorney unless or until the President appoints someone else, according to the law. Further, the law that put Letten in charge makes no reference to the word "acting."

At first, Letten admits, he was perturbed that the media kept using the erroneous adjective in front of his job title. But, he says, "I decided not to make a big deal out of it. I think it's immodest. I have been appointed U.S. Attorney by both the Attorney General and the court."

With Gov. Mike Foster's surprise announcement recently that he will no longer try to persuade Bush to appoint attorney Fred Hebee or anyone else to U.S. Attorney, Letten can keep the job until or unless the president finds someone else. But the story doesn't end there.

"Jim Letten is out of town today so I'm the acting U.S. Attorney," First Assistant U.S. Attorney Jan Mann said recently. It is Mann who assumes the role of "acting U.S. Attorney" whenever Letten leaves the 13-parish federal district. "I'm acting for Jim Letten in his absence today. He's not 'acting ' for anyone," Mann said, with a chuckle.

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