Dennis Cook, Associated Press
Former U.S. Attorney Alberto Gonzales

Andrew Jackson, Ol' Hickory, would have liked the Justice Department under Alberto Gonzales. When he was president, Jackson argued forcefully for the idea that victorious politicians should have the power to appoint their own supporters to federal career jobs. Hiring people based on merit, he believed, would lead to an entrenched bureaucracy in Washington.

But as Americans in the 19th century learned, the spoils system led to incompetence and corruption, which was worse.

That history is a preface to the headlines this week about how Gonzales, with the help of his aides — including two former Utahns — used political ideology as the basis for hiring career prosecutors and immigration judges when he served as attorney general to President Bush.

Anyone who has been near Washington understands that politics permeate everything there. In the early 21st century, partisanship often means believing that people loyal to the other party hold the Constitution in contempt and would do away with all that is good and decent. Being political means taking advantage of every opportunity to paint your opponent with devil's horns.

There is plenty of that going on in the wake of the Justice Department's own probe into Gonzales' hiring practices, which was released this week. In an election year, political sharks are especially sensitive to the smell of blood in the water.

But, all that aside, the Justice Department report spoke about officials rejecting a competent and experienced terrorism prosecutor because his wife was a Democrat and allowing important vacancies among immigration judges to go unfilled while officials searched for someone with the right political qualifications.

Perhaps more than in any other area of government, the Justice Department needs to be populated with people who understand the law and can act evenhanded and with competence. Even in a place as political as Washington, the attorney general can set the tone for such a department — just as he can set an opposite tone by stressing partisan loyalty over all.

It's important to remember that Washington got serious about removing the spoils system in career civil service after an unsuccessful office-seeker, who likely was mentally ill, shot and killed President James Garfield in 1881. This came after years of scandals involving political appointees absconding with money and compromising military efforts.

Gonzales and his former subordinates may not have heard the last of the repercussions in this matter. Surely, they are not the only ones, in either party, who have hired and fired based on politics. But it is a serious matter nonetheless, and their acts should serve as warning to all who follow.