He upset Republicans and Democrats alike, brought Chicago’s most notorious dirty cop to justice and sent the last two governors of Illinois to prison.
And he’s close pals with FBI director James Comey.
Who better to replace outgoing Attorney General Eric Holder in the nation’s capital than gung-ho former U.S. Attorney Patrick Fitzgerald?
That was the reaction Thursday of many in Chicago’s legal circles to news of Holder’s resignation.
But, experts say, the independence and aggressiveness that would make Fitzgerald an outstanding candidate to run the Justice Department likely counts against him in Washington, D.C., where some Republicans still nurse grievances over his prosecution of former Vice President Dick Cheney’s chief of staff, Lewis “Scooter” Libby.
Nor is it clear that Fitzgerald is interested in becoming Attorney General for the last two years of President Barack Obama’s term. Calls on Thursday to Fitzgerald’s office at his law firm, Skadden, Arps, Slate, Meagher & Flom were not returned.
Early speculation suggested Massachusetts Governor Deval Patrick and current Justice Department insiders including Solicitor General Donald Verrilli are among the front-runners for the job. Still, Fitzgerald’s experience of running the U.S. Attorney’s office in Chicago for more than a decade, and his success in a string of high-profile public corruption prosecutions including those of former Governors George Ryan and Rod Blagojevich mean he’s ideally qualified, according to Chicago-Kent College of Law Professor Doug Godfrey.
“Sometimes when they’ve brought people in as attorney general who were great lawyers, they didn’t have that experience as an administrator, so that’s a big advantage,” Godfrey says. Add that to the fact that the thick-skinned Fitzgerald “in many ways doesn’t care what people think of him,” Godfrey added.
While that makes him a fearless prosecutor, it might give Obama pause, Godfrey said. “The last two years of most presidencies are usually hamstrung by congressional investigations which are keen to bring in the Justice Department, and Fitzgerald has shown he is very willing to go after politicians,” Godfrey said, adding that Obama might favor someone from academia and likely does not want a fight to confirm his nominee in the Senate, where Republicans angry about the Libby case might have their “knives out” for Fitzgerald.
Professor Jonathan Masur of the University of Chicago agreed that Fitzgerald’s history of going after law-breaking politicians on both sides of the aisle demonstrates “precisely the sort of integrity that we should be looking for in an attorney general.”
And Fitzgerald’s expertise in national security law, which he teaches a class on at the University of Chicago, means he’s well versed in civil liberties issues and questions about the role of the press that will continue to be hot button topics for whoever gets the job, Masur added.
His successful perjury prosecution of notorious Chicago Police Cmdr. Jon Burge for lying about police torture also counts in his favor at a time of increased national focus on police misconduct, according to prominent defense attorney Richard Kling, who teaches at Chicago-Kent.
But if Fitzgerald is interested in becoming attorney general and can convince the president and the U.S. Senate that he’s right for the job, he’d have to accept a hefty pay cut. The Attorney General’s $200,000 salary is significantly less than he can expect to make at Skadden, where partners typically make $2 million plus in profits per year.
Friends, though, say that’s unlikely to dissuade him. “Public service is in his blood,” said one former colleague who asked not to be named because he had not spoken to Fitzgerald and does not know if Fitzgerald is keen. “I think he’d be great.”