Sen. Debbie Stabenow said she could not support former Michigan House Speaker Tom Leonard for the role because of “deep policy differences.”
For nearly three years, the Western District of Michigan has gone without a Senate-confirmed U.S. Attorney. That was set to change last August when former Republican Michigan House Speaker Tom Leonard was selected by President Trump for the position.
On Friday, however, his nomination was returned to the president without the Senate’s approval. Michigan Sen. Debbie Stabenow told The Detroit News she could not support the former speaker because of “deep policy differences.”
In a statement released on Monday, Leonard said that Sens. Stabenow and Gary Peters stonewalled his nomination by refusing to meet with him and ultimately usher in a full vote by the Senate.
“I am extremely disappointed that Senator Peters and Senator Stabenow have chosen to block my confirmation from proceeding to the full Senate for a vote,” Leonard wrote on Facebook. “While I understand that the politics of Washington may force them to vote against my confirmation, I never anticipated they would personally prevent over three million citizens from West Michigan and the Upper Peninsula from having a voice to fight crime.”
He continued: “Despite multiple requests over the course of four months, neither Senator has been willing to take a meeting with me to discuss my vision for the office, or to discuss the needs of the district. This is not the Senator Stabenow and Senator Peters I grew to know as House Speaker.”
Leonard, who ran an unsuccessful campaign for Michigan Attorney General in 2018, also cited in his post several groups and individuals who supported his nomination. Among them were the Michigan Chamber of Commerce, The Police Officers Association of Michigan, Detroit Mayor Mike Duggan, and Michigan’s Republican U.S. Congressional Delegation.
The lack of support from a home-state senator, Brennan Center for Justice fellow Victoria Bassetti told Detroit News, “has traditionally” led to the end of that person’s nomination. Peters has yet to issue a public comment on the matter.
The White House announced Leonard’s nomination and others in August. At the time, Stabenow and Peters, both Democrats, expressed concerns about the choice and promised to review the former legislator’s background. Progress Michigan, however, staunchly opposed Leonard for the role, citing his record on choosing corporate interests over the welfare of Michiganders.
Currently, the U.S. Attorney’s Office – Western District of Michigan, which covers 49 counties, is led by Andrew Birge, a career prosecutor who was appointed to the post in 2017 when Trump took office and Democratic U.S. Attorney Pat Miles resigned. (At the time, the administration was criticized for instructing 46 U.S. attorneys nominated by President Obama to immediately resign and vacate their offices.)
Researchers who study the criminal justice system say that these federal prosecutors have a lot of influence in the criminal and civil cases they handle. Some scholars, in fact, say they have too much “unchecked power.”
As the authors of a 2016 study explain, U.S. attorneys “have an unparalleled role in the implementation of federal criminal law” because of their ability to charge defendants, negotiate and accept plea deals, and recommend sentences. Because a vast majority of cases are settled before they go to trial, federal prosecutors are typically “final adjudicators.”
“Though formally members of the executive branch, their discretion gives U.S. Attorneys a quasijudicial role,” the study’s authors write.
Not having a Senate-confirmed head in one of the country’s 93 U.S. attorney’s offices is a major concern, former U.S. Attorney General Eric Holder told local media last year.
“The offices really can’t focus in a way that with a Senate-confirmed U.S. attorney they can,” he said. “Someone that comes in and sets priorities. There’s an accountability that a confirmed person has that an acting person does not. … The fact that [the Western District of Michigan hasn’t had] one for two and a half years … that’s just nuts.”