Friends and foes of Michael Mukasey predict his calm demeanor and decades of courtroom experience will come as a relief to a Justice Department wracked by claims of crass political manipulation.
“He has no political agenda. His agenda will be to bring the Justice Department back to where it should be,” said Charles Stillman, a high-powered New York lawyer who described himself Monday as a Democrat who fervently supports Mukasey’s nomination to be the next attorney general.
“Michael’s presence, assuming that the politicians do the right thing, will be a calming, stabilizing force and he will come to the job with that mission and that mission alone,” Stillman said.
If confirmed, Mukasey will take the helm of a Justice Department gripped by months-long investigations into the firings of nine U.S. attorneys and lingering questions about then-Attorney General Alberto Gonzales’ sworn testimony on the Bush administration’s terrorist surveillance program.
Critics support Bush's nominee
One of Mukasey’s harshest critics said he, too, thought the former judge would be a good fit at the Justice Department — but for very different reasons.
“I think he’ll make an excellent attorney general because now he can proceed unencumbered by any sense of fair play or impartiality,” said Ron Kuby, an outspoken civil rights lawyer and radio host who is highly critical of government methods.
Kuby said there are things he likes about Mukasey. He suspects the judge opposes the death penalty, and called him “one of the brighter bulbs on the bench — he just used his incredible intelligence to distort the law.”
Even such criticism points to an underlying strength of Mukasey’s resume: His long experience dealing with terror cases as a judge, and as a federal prosecutor before that.
The retired judge played a central role in such cases for over a decade — much of that time getting round-the-clock protection from armed guards.
Key role in fighting terror
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 U.S. District Court for the Southern District of New York.
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.
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.”
Against the government’s wishes, the judge appointed a lawyer to represent Padilla. After a legal odyssey that is still the subject of debate, Padilla was convicted last month of murder conspiracy.
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.
One of Padilla’s first lawyers, Donna Newman, said she was very pleased with Mukasey’s nomination, because he genuinely cared about her client’s rights as an American citizen.
“He was somebody whose decisions were thoughtful, intelligent, based on thorough research, and above all demonstrated a real concern for the Constitution and the rule of law,” Newman said.
Other terror cases
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.
After the 2001 attacks, the government transferred its 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.
Mukasey’s long experience with terror suspects had consequences in his personal life: He and his wife were given round-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 with their supervisors in Washington 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.
Nominee has powerful friends
Mukasey may have made enemies, but he also has made powerful friends.
He and his son, Marc Mukasey, are advisers to Rudy Giuliani’s presidential campaign on matters involving the justice system. Marc Mukasey also works at Giuliani’s law firm.
Campaign finance records show Mukasey has made few political donations at the federal level, and that not all of the money he gave went to Republicans.
From the 1980 election to this year, the only contributions listed for Mukasey are $1,000 given last September to Connecticut Sen. Joe Lieberman, a Democrat-turned-independent, and $1,200 to Giuliani’s presidential campaign this year, according to the nonpartisan CQ Money Line, a service that tracks political giving.
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 before recommending him to White House counsel Fred Fielding for the current position.