Ex-N.Y. Judge Touted as Next Attorney General

President Bush will announce the selection of Michael Mukasey, a retired federal judge, to replace Alberto Gonzales as U.S. attorney general. Mukasey heard many high-profile terrorism cases as a federal judge in New York.

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STEVE INSKEEP, host:

It's MORNING EDITION from NPR News. Good morning. I'm Steve Inskeep.

RENEE MONTAGNE, host:

And I'm Renee Montagne.

President Bush has chosen a nominee to replace Alberto Gonzales as the country's attorney general. He is Michael Mukasey and he's a retired federal judge from New York. The president expected to make the official announcement within the hour.

Joining us is NPR's Justice correspondent Ari Shapiro.

Good morning, Ari.

ARI SHAPIRO: Good morning, Renee.

MONTAGNE: Now, in the last few weeks, we've heard a lot of names as possible attorney general picks. Why Michael Mukasey?

SHAPIRO: Well, you're exactly right. Since Alberto Gonzales announced a few weeks ago that he was going to resign, we saw the White House float one name after another. First it was Homeland Security Secretary Michael Chertoff. Then it was former Solicitor General Ted Olson. We were told at one time or another that all these folks are frontrunners. And it was almost Goldilocks-and-the-three-bears situation where Senate Democrats, who are going to have confirm whoever this nominee is, said no this one isn't quite right because he's too conservative, that one is not quite right for whatever reason. And judge Michael Mukasey is somebody is on the Democrats' list very early on.

Senator Charles Schumer of New York, Senate Democrat on the Judiciary Committee, mentioned Mukasey's name back in March as a possible attorney general who Democrats would be satisfied seeing in the Justice Department, even though Mukasey is a Republican. Even back in 2003, Democrats and liberal groups were talking about Mukasey as a Republican who they would see as a good, potential Supreme Court nominee.

So although he is something of a dark horse, he has supporters across the political waterfront. He's a consultant to presidential aspirant Rudy Giuliani and, as I mentioned, Senator Schumer has said other very good things about him on the opposite side of the political spectrum.

MONTAGNE: So tell us why that should be? Give us some background on his career.

SHAPIRO: Well, he's certainly not a Washington insider. As recently as late last week, prominent Washington legal figures were saying Judge Michael, who? We've never heard of this guy. But he's very strong on national security. President Reagan appointed him to the federal bench in 1987. And in his almost 20 years on the court, he heard many of the most important terrorism cases in the country.

He heard the case of the American enemy combatant Jose Padilla. In that case, he actually ruled partly in favor of the government, partly in favor of Padilla. He, back in 1996, heard the case of the blind sheikh, Sheikh Omar Abdel-Rahman, who is accused of plotting to attack landmarks in New York City. And the judge sentenced that sheikh to life in prison. Mukasey has prosecution experience going back to the 1970s, working in the U.S. attorney's office as a federal prosecutor.

He's now 66 years old. Last year, he retired as a judge to go back into private practice. And that's where we find him today.

INSKEEP: And from what you just said it sounds like he's an excellent bet to be confirmed.

SHAPIRO: Right. His confirmation prospects right now look very good. Last night, Senator Schumer put out a statement saying, while he is certainly conservative, Judge Mukasey seems to be the kind of nominee who would put rule of law first and show independence from the White House. Schumer said Mukasey has the potential to become a consensus nominee.

Well, you may remember, two-and-a-half years ago when Alberto Gonzales was put up to be the attorney general, President Bush was in a position where he had what he called a lot of political capital. Right now, the White House is in a very different position. And the fact that they're choosing Mukasey as opposed to somebody like Ted Olson or Michael Chertoff who the Democrats might be more likely to resist shows that they're not up for a knockdown, drag-out confirmation battle. They want somebody who is palatable and who can get confirmed.

MONTAGNE: And if he is confirmed, Michael Mukasey is going to be taking on a tough job?

SHAPIRO: Right. The department has been shaken by the scandals and investigations. Many people there are saying morale is at its worst point in the department's history. We've had top officials resigning en masse over the last six months. In fact, it's hard to imagine how all of these positions can even get filled by the end of the Bush administration, given that so many of them have to go through a confirmation process.

Whoever takes the helm, it looks likely to be Mukasey at this point, is going to have to convey to the public that politics does not influence law enforcement at the Justice Department. And they're also going to have to navigate between the White House and Congress as these investigations and clashes over executive privilege play out on the next 16 months.

MONTAGNE: Ari, thank you very much.

SHAPIRO: You're welcome.

MONTAGNE: NPR's Ari Shapiro.

A Rose Garden ceremony is planned, this hour, at which President Bush will announce that retired New York Judge Michael Mukasey is his pick to succeed Alberto Gonzales as attorney general.

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Bush Nominates Mukasey as Attorney General

Quick Bio: Michael Mukasey

Born: 1941 in New York City

Education: Yale Law School, 1967; Columbia College, Columbia University, 1963

2006-Present: Partner, Patterson Belknap Webb & Tyler law firm

1988-2006: Judge of the U.S. District Court for the Southern District of New York (including six years as chief judge)

1976-88: Attorney, Patterson Belknap (eventually becoming partner)

1972-76: Assistant U.S. Attorney in the criminal division of the Southern District of New York

The Associated Press

President Bush on Monday nominated retired federal judge Michael Mukasey to replace Alberto Gonzales as attorney general, a choice aimed at avoiding bipartisan bickering gaining quick Senate approval.

Mukasey, 66, currently serves as a judicial adviser to GOP presidential hopeful Rudolph Giuliani, who he once worked under as an assistant U.S. attorney in New York.

During a Rose Garden announcement, Mr. Bush referred to Mukasey's involvement in several New York terrorism trials and said the nominee has "an especially vital role to play in time of war."

The president said Mukasey was "clear eyed about the threat our nation faces," adding that he would "make sure that law enforcement has the tools to do their jobs."

"He knows what it takes to fight this war effectively and he knows how to do it in a manner consistent with our laws and our Constitution," Bush said, standing next Mukasey in the Rose Garden.

The president urged the Senate to quickly confirm Mukasey, who would be Bush's third attorney general.

If approved by the Senate, Mukasey would take charge of a Justice Department where morale is low following months of investigations into the firings of nine U.S. attorneys and Gonzales' sworn testimony on the Bush administration's terrorist surveillance program.

Mukasey said he was honored to be Bush's nominee to take the helm of the department and that it was his "fondest hope and prayer" that if he is confirmed, he can give department employees the "support they deserve."

Senate Democrats declared no outright opposition to Mukasey. But they made clear that there would be no confirmation hearings until the administration answers outstanding questions about the White House's role in the firings of federal prosecutors over the winter.

"Our focus now will be on securing the relevant information we need so we can proceed to schedule fair and thorough hearings," said Sen. Patrick Leahy (D-VT), the chairman of the Senate Judiciary Committee. "Cooperation from the White House will be essential in determining that schedule."

Mukasey is not exactly a Washington insider, but has strong national security credentials. He was appointed to the federal bench in New York by President Reagan and heard many high-profile terrorism cases in the roughly 20 years that followed. One such case was that of Jose Padilla — the so-called American enemy combatant.

The White House settled on Mukasey after Senate Democrats rejected other possible nominees during the last two weeks. Democrats mentioned Mukasey early on as a Republican they believe would make a good attorney general.

In 2005, the liberal Alliance for Justice put Mukasey on a list of four judges who, if chosen for the Supreme Court, would show the president's commitment to nominating people who could be supported by Democrats and Republicans.

But he has drawn lukewarm reviews from some members of the GOP's right flank. Some legal conservatives and Republican activists have expressed reservations about Mukasey's legal record and past endorsements from liberals — and were drafting a strategy to oppose his confirmation.

Bush critics contended the Mukasey nomination was evidence of the president's weakened political clout as he heads into the final 15 months of his presidency. The president's supporters say Mukasey has impeccable credentials, is a strong, law-and-order jurist, especially on national security issues, and will restore confidence in the Justice Department.

During his 18 years as a judge, Mukasey presided over thousands of cases, including the trial of Sheik Omar Abdel-Rahman, who was accused of plotting to destroy New York City landmarks. In the 1996 sentencing of co-conspirators in the case, Mukasey accused the sheik 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.

From NPR reports and The Associated Press

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