US justice chief challenged in Supreme Court

Under fire: The US Supreme Court has been asked to rule on the legality of President Donald Trump's appointment of Matthew Whitaker as acting attorney general (AFP Photo/NICHOLAS KAMM)

Washington (AFP) - The US Justice Department on Monday defended President Donald Trump's naming Matthew Whitaker as acting attorney general without Senate confirmation, saying the appointment was legal based on "centuries of practice and precedent."

Responding to a petition to the Supreme Court to declare Whitaker's appointment illegal, department spokeswoman Kerri Kupec said it is consistent with laws governing presidential appointments of top-level officials and "comports with... actions of US presidents, both Republican and Democrat."

Kupec's statement following rising questions over whether Trump's choice of Whitaker violated federal law, because Whitaker has not gone through the confirmation process required for cabinet officials and especially Justice Department chiefs.

Trump named the former prosecutor and television commentator to be acting attorney general on November 7 after forcing attorney general Jeff Sessions to resign.

Many analysts believe Whitaker was chosen to protect Trump from the Russia collusion investigation of Special Counsel Robert Mueller, who will now be under Whitaker's control.

Sessions had recused himself from overseeing the Russia probe, handing the responsibility to Deputy Attorney general Rod Rosenstein.

Normally Rosenstein, who has gone through Senate confirmation, would have been made acting attorney general until a new nominee could be vetted.

Late Friday lawyers petitioning the Supreme Court to review their client's lawsuit against the Justice Department -- a case originally known as Michaels v. Sessions -- asked the high court to rule on whether Whitaker can legally stand for the department in the case.

They said that his questionable appointment could destabilize any federal court case in the country, and said Rosenstein instead should represent the department.

"This is the extraordinary case in which the identity of the successor is both contested and has important implications for the administration of justice nationally," they wrote.

"Because Whitaker's appointment does not satisfy the Appointments Clause, it is unlawful, and he cannot serve as Acting Attorney General," they said.

It was the second challenge in one week to Whitaker's appointment.

Last Tuesday the state of Maryland asked a federal judge to block Whitaker from acting on behalf of the department in an ongoing court case on health care policy, likewise arguing that he had not been approved by the Senate.

"President Trump's brazen attempt to flout the law and constitution in bypassing Deputy US Attorney General Rosenstein in favor of a partisan and unqualified staffer cannot stand," Maryland state Attorney General Brian Frosh said.