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Mukasey seen as his own man

Bush's choice for attorney general has an independent streak that could put the president in a tough position.

September 23, 2007|Richard B. Schmitt and Richard A. Serrano | Times Staff Writers

WASHINGTON — By all accounts, Michael B. Mukasey is not someone who is easily intimidated.

As a federal judge, he stared down convicted terrorists. He presided over a fiercely independent Manhattan federal court nicknamed the "Sovereign District of New York." He is little interested in politics or politicians.

And if confirmed as attorney general, his independent streak could pose problems for President Bush.

With his reputation already well-established and a gig at the Justice Department expected to last no more than a year or so, Mukasey, at 66, has little to lose. As a result, observers think he'll view his role much differently than did his predecessor as attorney general, Alberto R. Gonzales, who developed a reputation as a loyal advocate for administration legal positions and policies.

Although Mukasey would be in the Bush Cabinet and be expected to be part of the team, those who know him say he would not hesitate to bring his considerable legal heft to bear if he believed Bush was not following the law. This could cause Bush some uncomfortable moments, especially in dealing with Congress in the ongoing probes of the Justice Department and White House.

"He is not going to be pushed around," said Bruce Ackerman, a Yale Law School professor who was a classmate there with Mukasey in the 1960s. "He is very much a serious judge. The administration cannot afford to antagonize him."

Some who have known Mukasey for years wonder whether Bush really knows what he is getting into. "If I were George W. Bush, I never would have picked Michael Mukasey," said Edward M. Shaw, a former colleague of Mukasey at the U.S. attorney's office in Manhattan.

On Friday, Bush officially launched the confirmation process, sending Mukasey's name to the Senate to succeed Gonzales, Bush's longtime friend and advisor. A former prosecutor himself and a judge for nearly two decades, Mukasey is widely viewed as a man of integrity. Despite conservative leanings, he has won early support from Democrats as well as Republicans.

Nevertheless, Mukasey may face tough questions from Democrats about his conservative views on national security versus civil liberties. The Senate has not scheduled confirmation hearings; Judiciary Committee Chairman Sen. Patrick J. Leahy (D-Vt.) has threatened to delay the hearings if the White House continues to withhold documents and testimony related to the committee's investigation of the Justice Department.

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Firm stances

In rounds of meetings with lawmakers late last week, Mukasey made it clear that he would fire any Justice Department employee who discussed sensitive cases with anyone at the White House. Under Gonzales, a pipeline developed between Justice and White House officials that critics believe opened the way to abuse. Mukasey also said that politicians calling the Justice Department would be given only two phone numbers -- his and that of his top deputy.

He is also expected to face demands from Democrats to appoint a special prosecutor to investigate whether crimes were committed in connection with the firing last year of nine U.S. attorneys. An internal Justice Department probe into the matter is already underway. It is far from clear what Mukasey will do on that score, although some note he hails from the same New York legal circles that produced former Deputy Atty. Gen. James B. Comey, who in 2003 appointed a special prosecutor to investigate the White House's involvement in the CIA leak case.

Mukasey could also have an effect on other Bush administration policies, including the 2-decade-old system under which criminals are sentenced in federal court. Gonzales was a strong proponent of strict guidelines that gave judges little discretion in sentencing. While on the bench, Mukasey was among a number of judges who thought that the guidelines, and the limits they placed on the power of the courts, violated the principle of separation of powers under the Constitution.

In 2003, when Congress enacted a law that required judges to report every case in which they ordered a sentence below the guidelines, Mukasey was among those threatening revolt. "They can have their blacklist," he declared in an interview. "But we have life tenure."

To be sure, Mukasey seems to think like Bush on many issues that Bush cares about. Mukasey is a relative hawk on national security matters and has supported aggressive measures in the war on terrorism. He approved the rounding up of scores of illegal immigrants after the Sept. 11 attacks with a controversial form of warrant that allowed their incarceration because they may have been witnesses to crimes. He has defended the Patriot Act and derided some of its major critics, including librarians who have said the law threatened citizens' 1st Amendment rights.

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