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Does It Matter That Montana Lacks A Permanent U.S. Attorney?

Michael Cotter, former U.S. attorney for the district of Montana.
U.S. Department of Justice

Montana’s been without a permanent U.S. Attorney for almost two straight months. Back on March 10, President Donald Trump fired all 46 of the country’s remaining U.S. Attorneys who had been appointed by Barack Obama.

Montana’s Mike Cotter was one of them.

“I thought it was unprofessional, and unfortunate and shortsighted," Cotter says.

Cotter asserts the purge essentially prevented a clean and orderly transition from the Obama-era Justice Department to Trump’s DoJ. He also notes that much of the leadership within various Justice Department divisions also still isn’t in place:

“So, without the leadership at the top — and that would include the U.S. Attorneys — it can be quite chaotic. There is little or no guidance or communication that comes from the Department out to the 94 districts or the 93 United States attorneys that oversee the various districts."

Montana Attorney General Tim Fox says his office had a good working relationship with Cotter’s. Fox says those strong ties continue today with Montana’s Acting U.S. Attorney, Leif Johnson.

“We haven’t really missed a beat, that I’m aware of," Fox says.

Acting U.S. Attorney Leif Johnson agrees the potentially lengthy transition, so far, isn’t causing any significant disruption:

"These folks who work in the U.S. Attorney’s office are very experienced and things keep moving. That’s my object as the acting U.S. Attorney; to concentrate on our core mission, which is to prosecute crimes and defend the government’s interest wherever it arises in federal court.”

United States Attorneys serve as conduits between the Justice Department and local districts. In Montana, the entire state is one district. They handle investigations and prosecutions according to the letter of the law. But U.S Attorneys are also political appointees and reflect any given administration’s political priorities.

Montana Attorney General Tim Fox:

“United States Attorney General Jeff Sessions has signaled a number of things that I think are important for Montana. Certainly, we need to get a handle on the drug dealing that goes on in our state. We need, I think, to work on public safety initiatives in Indian Country.”

Montana Attorney General Tim Fox.
Credit Courtesy Montana DOJ
Montana Attorney General Tim Fox.

For example, Sessions has already provided some federally recognized tribes access to national crime information databases. A new interagency group has been formed to respond to violent crime in Indian Country. 

Montana’s former U.S. Attorney, Mike Cotter predicts immigration reform will also be a top priority for Trump’s Justice Department.

"I think that is a very large part of Mr. Session’s priorities. Not only immigration, but deportation,” Cotter says.

No one who spoke to MTPR had any insight on when Montana will get its next full time U.S. attorney, save that bigger metropolitan areas will likely take priority. But, State Attorney General Tim Fox says people are certainly talking about it:

"I can tell you there’s been some interest. I’ve had people call me looking for support. I don’t want to reveal their names because they all have jobs and not all of them will get the U.S. attorney job. I’m hopeful the President will act swiftly.”

Montana’s acting U.S. Attorney, Leif Johnson isn’t necessarily holding his breath for a quick resolution:

“Just because in prior transitions, the office has gone for a number of months before a new U.S. Attorney was appointed and confirmed by the Senate. That process in the Obama transition took almost a year.”

But during that transition, Bill Mercer, Montana’s U.S. Attorney under George W. Bush, stayed on duty until Mike Cotter replaced him, which according to Cotter, made for a smooth transition.

In an emailed statement to Montana Public Radio, Montana Democratic U.S. Senator Jon Tester said it was irresponsible to demand Cotter’s resignation without any plan to replace him. The statement said in part, "It is my hope that the Montana delegation can work with President Trump to nominate a Montanan with an extensive legal background, a good temperament and the experience to serve Big Sky Country.”

Republican Senator Steve Daines did not respond to our request for comment.

Edward O’Brien first landed at Montana Public Radio three decades ago as a news intern while attending the UM School of Journalism. He covers a wide range of stories from around the state.  
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