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Speculation on future U.S. Attorney in Southern District of Texas

By: Luke Gilman | Other Posts by
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Texas Lawyer has an interesting article on the political angling of those vying for the U.S. Attorney in Houston. There are 93 such federal prosecutors throughout the United States and it remains one of the most prestigious and sought-after jobs in the law despite recent controversy over the politically-motivated dismissal of several U.S. Attorneys in New Mexico, Arizona, California, and elsewhere. U.S. Attorneys serve at the pleasure of the President, so Obama’s election essentially means an new slate in the office.

In the Southern District of Texas, U.S. Attorney Don DeGabrielle resigned his post on Nov. 8 to become a partner in Fulbright and Jaworski in Houston. Tim Johnson, DeGabrielle’s former first assistant, is now acting U.S. attorney for the district. Johnson says he is not interested in pursuing the appointment.

One lawyer mentioned as a contender to take over for Johnson is Larry Veselka, a partner in Houston’s Smyser Kaplan and Veselka who practices criminal defense. Veselka sought the U.S. attorney position in 1993 after Clinton was elected president, but the job went to Gaynelle Griffin Jones.

“I think it would be fun,” Veselka says of being U.S. attorney. “They could tell me ‘no’ if they want to, but I’m going to ask.”

Veselka says he plans to call the office of U.S. Rep. Solomon Ortiz, D-Corpus Christi — the most senior member of the Texas Democratic congressional delegation — to express his interest in the position as well as call U.S. Rep. Chet Edwards, D-Waco, who Obama considered as a possible running mate before selecting U.S. Sen. Joe Biden, D-Del. Many lawyers believe Edwards may be influential in helping the Obama administration select nominees. Edwards did not return a telephone call seeking comment.

Philip Hilder of Houston’s Philip Hilder and Associates sought the U.S. attorney position unsuccessfully during the Clinton administration. Hilder is a former U.S. Department of Justice attorney who was in charge of the Houston field office and a former assistant U.S. attorney in the Southern District. He did not return a telephone call seeking comment on whether he is currently interested in the U.S. attorney post. Neither did Susan Strawn, a former DOJ attorney who now is an adjunct professor at the University of Houston Law Center. Strawn ran as a Democrat for the Texas Court of Criminal Appeals this year but was defeated in the Nov. 4 general election.

“It’s common when you make a strong showing in a statewide election, you get an appointment,” says Susan Hays, a Dallas solo who formerly was chairwoman of the Dallas County Democratic Party. “And she’s got a long career in the Department of Justice.” Harris County Democratic Party chairman Gerry Birnberg could not be reached for comment.

It’s interesting to note that no similar political maneuvering is taking place on the other side of counsel’s table. Federal Public Defenders are officers of the court, appointed by the respective Circuit Court of Appeal for a four year term. This both precludes the conflict of interest of having opposing sides appointed by the executive branch and shields the position from untoward political pressure.

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