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In naming Michael Mukasey as his third attorney general in six years, President George W. Bush on Monday picked an outsider to run the beleaguered Justice Department for a little more than a year. The White House made that point quite clear on a fact sheet about Mukasey’s qualifications: “Judge Mukasey brings to the position of Attorney General a fresh perspective and a non-political background.” Former Attorney General Alberto Gonzales, a close Bush adviser, announced his resignation last month after months of controversy over the firing of nine U.S. attorneys in 2006. Gonzales, also a former White House counsel, was seen by critics in both parties as too close to the president and largely ineffective as a leader. Mukasey, 66, has been a partner at New York’s Patterson, Belknap, Webb & Tyler for the past year, after retiring as chief judge in the busy and influential U.S. District Court for the Southern District of New York. At the firm, he was involved in white-collar defense and investigations and litigation in other civil and criminal areas. He was an assistant U.S. attorney from 1972 to 1976 and spent the next 12 years at the firm. In 1987, President Ronald Reagan nominated him to the federal bench. In stark contrast to his predecessor, Mukasey is neither a Bush confidante nor someone who is seen as overtly political. During a White House press conference, Bush noted Mukasey’s exposure to major national security cases as some of his strongest credentials. Mukasey presided over the 1995 trial of the “Blind Sheik,” Omar Abdel Rahman, who was convicted for the 1993 bombing of the World Trade Center. Mukasey also was the first judge to allow, against the government’s wishes, former enemy combatant and recently convicted terrorist Jos� Padilla access to his lawyers. In 2002, he agreed with the government’s argument for holding Americans as enemy combatants during a war but frowned upon the government’s assertion that detainees should not see lawyers if they wished to challenge their status. “He knows what it takes to fight this war effectively, and he knows how to do it in a manner that is consistent with our laws and our Constitution,” Bush said. A different direction Observers say Mukasey also has appeal because he does not fit the mold of recent attorneys general. “He doesn’t have the same sort of background inside Washington the others considered for the position have,” says Ronald Cass, former dean of Boston University’s School of Law and a former Reagan appointee. “I wouldn’t say he is an outsider, but, because he hasn’t been somebody in Washington for a while, he isn’t seen with the same jaundiced eyes that the Democrats are casting on other Republicans.” Even liberal interest groups are praising Mukasey. Ralph Neas, president of the liberal advocacy group People for the American Way, says he is impressed by the “uniformity of generally positive reactions” to Mukasey’s nomination and thinks it will pass through the Senate without much friction. “He appears to be a conservative Republican, not a right-wing ideologue, and a person who has demonstrated respect for the rule of law,” Neas says. On whether he has the management skills need to lead Main Justice, Neas says, “There are a lot of issues regarding administrative experience” that will sort themselves out during Senate questioning. At least one high-ranking career Justice Department official says things are looking far better from the bottom up now that Gonzales is gone. “I think everybody’s pretty positive” about Mukasey, the veteran prosecutor says. “It’s always frustrating when political issues eclipse the good work that people working really hard do. Now we can go back to guns, drugs, and terrorism.” Democrats on the Senate Judiciary Committee were cautiously positive about his nomination, but their statements signaled that the nominee won’t get a free pass. Chairman Patrick Leahy of Vermont was noncommittal. Leahy’s statement said the confirmation process would be “serious and deliberate” and hearings would be “fair and thorough” — wording that indicates confirmation is unlikely to come with breakneck speed. His staff refused to answer questions. A White House spokeswoman said the president wants Mukasey confirmed by Oct. 8, ahead of Congress’ recess. Other Democrats on the committee stressed plans to ask Mukasey where his loyalties lie and whether he’ll buck congressional checks on presidential power. “The key test for me is: will Judge Mukasey understand that as Attorney General, he is the people’s lawyer, not the President’s lawyer?” asked Sen. Joseph Biden Jr. (D-Del.), a presidential contender, in a written statement. Sen. Charles Schumer of New York — a leader in the fight to dislodge Gonzales — said Mukasey “seems to be the kind of nominee who would put rule of law first and show independence from the White House, our most important criteria.” Filling the leadership void How well Mukasey can translate his independence and reputation into running a Department of Justice sorely in need of leadership remains to be seen. Despite Mukasey’s extensive legal experience, he has never led such a large organization — one with more than 115,000 employees. Those who have worked with or appeared before Mukasey in court say the nominee is an intense worker with good judgement. “He’s a fair, smart judge,” says Daniel Richman, a Columbia University law professor who was an assistant U.S. attorney in the Southern District of New York from 1987 to 1992. “And, of course, I also think he has the knowledge for how the criminal justice system can and should interact with terrorist suspects.” Because of his experience in the field, Richman says, Mukasey will be well-suited to restore confidence and earn the respect of U.S. attorneys. “Anyone can mouth lines about respect for the U.S attorney systems, but someone with his ties brings a credibility that few others can bring,” adds Richman, who worked with Mukasey for a year at Patterson, Belknap, Webb & Tyler in 1986. As an administrator, Richman says, the former chief judge may have a learning curve. “A lot of the department can and will run itself,” he says. “Sure, he’s never run an enterprise of that size, but I think that with help from a good deputy and with support throughout the system, he can be off and running in no time.” Even the one-time front-runner for the attorney general’s position had a few nice words to say about Mukasey. Theodore Olson, the former solicitor general who until late last week was the president’s favored pick for the AG job, praised Bush’s nominee. “He is an outstanding choice for attorney general. Intelligent, wise, experienced, and a man of great integrity,” says Olson, a partner at Gibson, Dunn & Crutcher. “His tenure at the U.S. Attorney’s Office and as a respected federal judge will be most valuable in this position.” In an e-mail, Olson showed no hard feelings about being passed over: “This nomination is in the best interest of the Department of Justice — since he is so highly regarded, he should be confirmed expeditiously so that the department will have the leadership it needs.” Some of those who know Mukasey best remember his small figure surrounded by a cadre of towering bodyguards during some of the more contentious phases of the trial of Rahman. Former federal prosecutors and officials at the Southern District of New York expressed respect for his intellect and praised his poise when faced with adversity during and after the terrorist attacks of Sept. 11, 2001. Managing one of the country’s largest federal court districts mere blocks away from the World Trade Center attacks forced Mukasey to improvise and keep things running as smoothly as possible. He and the other judges worked around the clock to keep up with the avalanche of search warrant applications, grand jury subpoenas, material witness summons, and other proceedings related to the attacks. In the courtroom, he was known as a fair and even-handed judge who was revered by his peers and praised in appellate court decisions. “He’s very decisive. He has a very commanding demeanor in the courtroom,” says David Kelley, a former U.S. attorney in the Southern District, who was sworn in by Mukasey in December 2003. “He has an ability to size up things very quickly and is usually several steps ahead of litigants who are in front of him.” Mary Jo White, the former U.S. attorney in the Southern District who oversaw some of the nation’s first terrorism trials in the 1990s, remembers Mukasey as a pleasant and professional jurist who was able to wade through some of the more complex cases of his time. “During the Sheik Rahman trial, he had 10 defendants on trial, and he controlled his courtroom very tightly,” White says. “He has dealt with some of the most complicated, novel issues that any judge will ever see. That’s who he is: a tough-minded, clear-eyed person. DOJ is very lucky to get him.” Pedro Ruz Gutierrez can be contacted at [email protected] Joe Palazzolo can be contacted at [email protected] Reporters Carrie Levine and Jeff Horwitz contributed to this article.

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