Retired judge Michael Mukasey is intimately familiar with the nation’s legal battles over terrorism. He played a central role in such cases for over a decade — much of that time getting around-the-clock protection from armed guards.
Mukasey, 66, once worked as a reporter, but gave it up to pursue a career in law. He was nominated to the federal bench in 1987 by President Reagan and eventually became the chief judge of the high-profile Manhattan courthouse.
As such, he played a key role in the nation’s response to the Sept. 11 attacks, which brought down the World Trade Center towers just blocks from Mukasey’s courthouse.
In the days after the attacks, Mukasey and other New York judges worked behind closed doors, seeing some of the first material witnesses detained by federal authorities.
Civil liberties advocates contended the material witness cases amounted to an unconstitutional roundup, and an inspector general’s report later found that many of the witnesses were subjected to physical and verbal abuse while held in a Brooklyn jail.
Mukasey also had a hand in one of the most hard-fought post-Sept. 11 terror cases: that of Jose Padilla, a U.S. citizen who was arrested in 2002 on a supposed mission to detonate a “dirty bomb.”
The judge appointed a lawyer to represent Padilla, but before a hearing on whether there was sufficient cause to detain Padilla, President Bush declared him an enemy combatant. That started a legal odyssey that ended with Padilla in a different federal court. He was convicted last month of murder conspiracy, and faces sentencing later this year.
Mukasey wrote an opinion piece recently in which he argued the Padilla case shows the current legal system is not well-equipped to aid a largely military effort to fight terrorists. He urged Congress to consider passing new laws to improve what he said was a mismatched legal system.
Mukasey handled terrorist cases for more than a decade.
In the 1996 sentencing of co-conspirators in a plot to blow up several New York City landmarks, Mukasey accused Sheik Omar Abdel-Rahman of trying to spread death “in a scale unseen in this country since the Civil War.” He then sentenced the blind sheik to life in prison.
There was a time when Bush administration officials held a dimmer view of Mukasey’s handling of that case, partly because it took 1-1/2 years to reach trial, a massive undertaking with more than 150 witnesses and 1,500 exhibits. The case ended with 11 convictions.
After the 2001 attacks, the government transferred the most important terror defendant, Zacarias Moussaoui, from New York to Virginia, where they hoped the Virginia court’s “rocket docket” would swiftly deliver the case to jurors more inclined to choose the death penalty.
Mukasey, then the chief judge in New York, had a caustic rejoinder to suggestions his courthouse was too slow to deal with terrorists.
“It’s easy to have a rocket docket when you have horse-and-buggy cases,” Mukasey said.
Like most judges with a long track record, Mukasey has also shot down some high-profile prosecutions.
Just last year, he ordered a mentally ill woman released from jail after she was charged with helping an Iraq spy agency under Saddam Hussein.
The judge rebuffed prosecutors who brought the charges, saying “there is no indication that (she) ever came close to influencing anyone, or could have.”
Mukasey’s long experience with terror suspects had consequences in his personal life: He and his wife were given around-the-clock protection from deputy U.S. marshals.
The protection given to Mukasey and another judge in New York City lasted at least eight years — far exceeding that of other federal judges around the country.
About three dozen deputies filed a grievance in 2005 complaining that the two judges and their spouses abused their position and compromised security by expecting their bodyguards “to carry groceries, luggage and golf clubs.” If they objected, the protectees subjected them to “condescending comments,” according to the grievance.
Mukasey may have made enemies, but he also made powerful friends.
He and his son, Marc Mukasey, are justice advisers to Rudy Giuliani’s presidential campaign. Marc Mukasey also works at Giuliani’s law firm.
Michael Mukasey was the judge who swore in Mayor-elect Giuliani in 1994 and 1998.
He also has boosters among some of Bush’s toughest Democratic critics. New York Sen. Charles Schumer had previously recommended Mukasey for the Supreme Court.