In the earliest months of the Bush Administration, then-Attorney General John Ashcroft began routinely overruling federal prosecutors’ sentencing recommendations, forcing on US Attorneys unprecedented numbers of death sentences. From that moment it should have been clear that this White House views these attorneys not as law-enforcement professionals but as the partisan muscle for its entwined political and policy ambitions.

Now, after the abrupt firing in December of eight US Attorneys, it stands revealed that officials at the highest levels of the Republican Party and the White House have routinely sought to strong-arm prosecutors in the most politically sensitive law-enforcement matters. In Seattle US Attorney John McKay lost his job after rebuffing a thoroughly improper request by Representative Doc Hastings, former chair of the House Ethics Committee (!), to intervene in Washington’s gubernatorial recount. In New Mexico US Attorney David Iglesias lost his job for refusing to speed up investigations of Democrats in time for the fall elections. Karl Rove, it turns out, routinely acted as the GOP’s messenger, conveying to the Justice Department the displeasure of political operatives with individual US Attorneys. And the President himself, according to press reports confirmed by the White House, explicitly sought the removal of US Attorneys deemed insufficiently enthusiastic about pursuing vote-fraud cases against Democrats.

The stakes in the Gonzales Eight scandal are far more profound than the hiring and firing of a few prosecutors. It is by now a shopworn cliché of the Bush Administration to say that the Constitution itself is at stake. But what other assessment is possible? Each of the Gonzales Eight–to a person, competent and admired prosecutors–lost a job because the President, Rove and other GOP bosses sought to warp fundamental American institutions, including elections, criminal investigations and sentencing, for political gain. That is the very essence of corruption.

Do US Attorneys in every Administration serve at the pleasure of the President? Of course. The appointment of federal prosecutors is part of the spoils system as surely as the nomination of federal judges. But as with judges, the rule of law depends on US Attorneys, whatever their political background, acting with independence and professionalism. Most Presidents, even the most partisan and corrupt, have understood that. In any event, these firings had nothing to do with law enforcement or competence.

Outrage over the scandal is bipartisan–and, one hopes, will bring ethical sanctions down on certain GOP Congress members, including Hastings. But it must be noted that it took Democratic subpoenas to expose Gonzales as a liar for saying that politics had nothing to do with the firings. Now the Attorney General has been forced to fold his cards in the long-simmering controversy over Congressional review of interim US Attorney appointments, and his chief of staff, Kyle Sampson, has resigned.

Democrats who have been reluctant to pursue investigations of torture, the Iraq War and Hurricane Katrina should take two lessons. First, all are aspects of the same scandal: a White House determined to establish extralegal authority both abroad and at home. Second, hearings and subpoenas not only get out the facts but force the Administration to back down. In this case, at least, Congressional Democrats have begun–but only begun–to find their collective voice as a check on Bush’s executive power-grab.

The case of the Gonzales Eight makes it vividly clear that this Justice Department isn’t only covering up illegality in the Nixon mode. From the President on down, the Administration sees no legal limits to presidential power, whether in a US Attorney’s office in Phoenix or an interrogation room in Guantánamo. In such an environment, with such permission from the Oval Office itself, the Justice Department is the locus, the engine, the pumping heart of scandal. That is why Senator Chuck Schumer was right to call for the resignation of Attorney General Gonzales. But that is also why Gonzales’s resignation, if it happens, will not be enough.