Attorney General Argues First Supreme Court Case Michael Mukasey, a former federal judge, seemed comfortable in front of the nine justices Tuesday as he argued a case involving the "Millennium Bomber," Ahmed Ressam. Ressam's lawyers argued one count against him should be thrown out.
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Attorney General Argues First Supreme Court Case

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Attorney General Argues First Supreme Court Case

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Attorney General Argues First Supreme Court Case

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ROBERT SIEGEL, host:

The second Supreme Court argument of the day was notable less for the legal principles involved than for the advocate representing the government.

NPR's Ari Shapiro has that story.

ARI SHAPIRO: Chief Justice John Roberts began with an invitation. General Mukasey and Attorney General Michael Mukasey stepped up to the podium for his first ever Supreme Court argument. He wore a traditional morning coat and looked more comfortable in front of the nine justices than he sometimes does in front of reporters. Mukasey is more accustomed to being on the other side of the bench. He was a federal judge for about 20 years. But it's a tradition for the attorney general to argue a case before the Supreme Court. And even though, neither of President Bush's last two attorneys general took the opportunity, Mukasey decided to go for it.

The case involves the so-called millennium bomber, Ahmed Ressam. He tried to smuggle explosives in from Canada. A jury convicted Ressam on nine counts including carrying explosives during a felony - in this case, lying to an immigration agent. Ressam's lawyers argue that the lie was not related to the explosives, so count nine should be thrown out for sentencing purposes.

Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg asked Mukasey why prosecutors tie the explosives charge to the false statements in the first place. After all, she said, it makes more sense to connect the explosives with something like conspiracy to commit a terrorist act.

Mukasey said, if you'll pardon the slang, the false statements count was a lead pipe cinch. Ressam clearly lied to the customs agent. He clearly carried explosives. Prosecutors wanted a charge on which jurors were sure to convict him.

Justice Antonin Scalia wondered, if you have gasoline in the trunk of your car when you file a false tax return, can you get another 10 years added to your sentence just because technically you were carrying explosives?

Chief Justice John Roberts asked whether there's a Justice Department policy not to bring those kinds of prosecutions. Mukasey said, not that I'm aware of. And when Justice Anthony Kennedy suggested that the lawyer standing before him could create such a policy, the attorney general said I think I'd be ideally suited to do it.

The justices didn't seem to go easy on Mukasey, but they weren't especially aggressive either. He ended with time to spare, which is unusual on a Supreme Court argument.

After the arguments, Mukasey posed on the steps of the courthouse for photos with his wife and kids. He didn't talk with reporters, but his opponent Tom Hillier did.

Mr. TOM HILLIER (Attorney): I think he did great. It's - I'm sure he was nervous though, even though he probably masked it a lot better than I.

SHAPIRO: Hillier said it's a privilege to argue in the Supreme Court anyway, but to do so opposite the attorney general made it pretty special.

Ari Shapiro, NPR News, Washington.

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