The Process Of Replacing SD's US Atty

Mar 12, 2015

US Attorney Brendan Johnson announced his resignation on February 18, 2015.
Credit Kealey Bultena / SDPB

South Dakota now has an interim United States Attorney this week after Brendan Johnson left office. Randy Sieler is leading the office for now. Multiple factors contribute to the appointment of a new permanent federal prosecutor.

The process of replacing a United States Attorney lies in the hands of the White House Administration. Sandy McKeown is an assistance professor in political science at the University of South Dakota. She says the president fills the US Attorney position with the advice and consent of the Senate.

"Usually if the Senate delegation – if either one of them is from the president’s political party – they will recommend a person or a group of persons for the president to select from. If there’s nobody in the Senate that’s from the president’s political party, then sometimes they will go to the Congressional delegation," McKeown says. "For President Obama, this might be somewhere problematic since we have a completely Republican delegation."

McKeown says the president may talk with key Democratic leaders in South Dakota who don’t hold office. She says the law doesn’t require a US Attorney to be the same political party as the president, but it’s unlikely he’d nominate a Republican.

Brendan Johnson was South Dakota’s United States Attorney for more than five years. When he announced his resignation, Johnson said ongoing investigations continue. But criminal justice professor Sandy McKeown says the focus of the office could change with a new US Attorney. She says that’s because United States Attorneys are expected to consider Department of Justice goals but they’re still relatively autonomous.

"The one thing that I think you might be looking for when the new US Attorney comes along is whether they’re going to maintain the same policy stances and enforcement stances that Brendan Johnson did," McKeown says. "For example, he was pretty heavily focused on sex trafficking in South Dakota, and, also, he was really turning his attention to criminal enforcement on the reservations. The next US Attorney would be relatively free to set policy within the parameters within whatever the Obama Administration is sort of identifying as their goals."

If the president selects a nominee, McKeown doesn’t anticipate too many problems with the Republican-led Senate confirmation. She says lawmakers don’t want to start a tit-for-tat dispute, because they all need support during nominations for their home states.

McKeown says President Barack Obama could choose not to appoint a new permanent US Attorney, because there’s no real timeline for the process.