Mukasey Confirmation for Attorney General to Start
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Michael Mukasey spent nearly 20 years judging cases from the bench in New York. Today, it's his turn to be judged. The Senate Judiciary Committee opens a confirmation hearing this morning on Mukasey's nomination to be the next attorney general.
NPR's Ari Shapiro reports.
ARI SHAPIRO: Judge Michael Mukasey's confirmation has never really been in doubt. The top Senate Democrat Harry Reid predicted weeks ago that Mukasey would be confirmed barring a bombshell. And yesterday, just after meeting with Mukasey, Senate Judiciary Committee Chairman Patrick Leahy told a crowd of reporters…
Senator PATRICK LEAHY (Democrat, Vermont; Chairman, Senate Judiciary Committee): I don't see a bombshell in the horizon. I see a man who has a potential to clean up the Department of Justice.
SHAPIRO: Still, Leahy promised to ask Mukasey tough questions at today's hearing - about torture, for example. Leahy told NPR he won't accept worn out platitudes like: this administration does not torture.
Sen. LEAHY: I think what we've had is a case where the White House has said, as most people would, well, we don't torture. But then waved around a legal document, which basically allowed torture. I want Judge Mukasey to make it very clear what will be legally allowed and what won't.
SHAPIRO: That may be difficult in an administration that has refused to discuss specific interrogation techniques.
Leahy has been fighting for years to see secret Justice Department documents describing the administration's policies on torture, domestic spying and other controversies. At this hearing, Leahy said, he'll focus on the future, not the past. He predicted that once Mukasey's confirmed, he'll make a good attorney general.
Sen. LEAHY: I could be a tough no nonsense attorney general and I'm happy with that. He's a conservative Republican, I have no problem with that, but I also want somebody who will not let anyone interfere with prosecutors doing their jobs.
SHAPIRO: It's not the first time Mukasey has been described as tough. A. Tom Goldman(ph) used to be a prosecutor in New York and he argued a case before Judge Mukasey. Goldman remembers an instance during the trial where the defense attorney called him Atom instead of Mr. Goldman.
Mr. A. TOM GOLDMAN (Former New York Prosecutor): And Judge Mukasey called him up at the sidebar and just pour into him.
Mr. GOLDMAN: Yeah. I guess he said, you do that again, I will break you.
SHAPIRO: He said, I will break you?
Mr. GOLDMAN: Yeah. He was really mad.
SHAPIRO: Goldman says one of Mukasey's greatest strengths is his firsthand experience with national security. As a New York judge, Mukasey presided over some of the most important terrorism cases in the country.
Mr. GOLDMAN: I think that Mukasey, more than most, realizes that even though we haven't had a major attack on American soil in more than six years now, that the threats out there.
SHAPIRO: On the home, Mukasey has received very positive reviews, even from defense attorneys who often disagree with him. But there are groups that oppose his nomination - human rights groups especially that object to some of Mukasey's writings about national security issues.
Mr. MICHAEL RATNER (President, Center for Constitutional Rights): This is not someone that we should trust with really fundamental rights and liberties.
SHAPIRO: Michael Ratner is head of the Center for Constitutional Rights. He doesn't believe Mukasey will do enough to protect individual rights in national security cases.
Mr. RATNER: It's difficult because I see people who - even friends of mine - say, well I've known him for 19 years, he's judicious, he's a decent guy. But when you're talking about the most major human rights crisis this country has faced - having to do with torture, renditions, preventive detention and the like - this is not the time when - because you've had a good relationship with someone, to have that be the factor.
SHAPIRO: Assuming Mukasey has confirmed, he has a difficult road ahead of him. Aside from the debates over torture, spying and executive privilege, many people have said morale at the Justice Department is at an all time low.
Harvard law professor David Barron says today hearing is Mukasey's first opportunity to turn that around.
Professor DAVID BARRON (Harvard Law School): What he says in those hearings will do a lot to convince the thousands of people working at the Justice Department that their new leader is going to be somebody committed to the rule of law and depends of the Justice Department in the way that the prior attorney general does not seem to have done.
SHAPIRO: The last attorney general, Alberto Gonzalez, was widely criticized by members of both parties for being too close to the president, for making inconsistent and sometimes contradictory statements under oath, and for hurting the Justice Department's credibility. Now Mukasey can describe how he plans to run things differently for the last year and a half of the Bush administration.
Ari Shapiro, NPR News, Washington.
AMOS: You can read a profile of the attorney general nominee at npr.org.
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