Mukasey nuanced on U.S. bench

Attorney general nominee tough in terror cases, lenient in others

September 23, 2007|By New York Times News Service

In his 18 years on the federal bench, Judge Michael B. Mukasey has issued more than 1,500 decisions concerning matters as cataclysmic as the Holocaust and as mundane as milk, beer and cigarettes.

In his opinions, Mukasey comes across as intelligent, prickly, impatient, practical and suspicious of abstractions.

He was quick to chastise and impose sanctions on lawyers who tested his patience or, worse, lied to him. He did not hesitate to rule against the powerful, including President Bush's uncle, or people with sympathetic cases but no claim to legal relief. His decisions often crackled with an acerbic and sometimes aphoristic wit.

He was tough at sentencing but not uniformly so. He showed leniency to people convicted of immigration offenses but little mercy for white-collar criminals.

Mukasey's opinions reveal a temperament and legal philosophy more complex than the one suggested by the handful of terrorism cases that prompted his nomination last week for attorney general.

In terrorism cases, Mukasey has been almost entirely unyielding. He sentenced Sheik Omar Abdel Rahman to life in prison after a nine-month trial. He endorsed the administration's power to hold an American citizen, Jose Padilla, in military detention as an enemy combatant, though he did allow Padilla access to lawyers. And he showed little sympathy to people held as material witnesses after the Sept. 11 attacks.

But outside the terrorism context, Mukasey's decisions suggest a more nuanced approach.

According to statistics compiled by the Transactional Records Access Clearinghouse at Syracuse University, Mukasey's median sentence was 24 months, compared with the 18-month median sentence imposed by the more than 70 other judges who sat with him on the U.S. District Court in Manhattan from 1988 to 2006.

In drug and weapons cases, Mukasey's sentences were more similar to those of other judges. But his median sentence in immigration cases was just 75 percent of the overall rate, while his white-collar sentences were double those of the other judges'.

A separate analysis by JudicialReports.com, published by the Institute for Judicial Studies, looked at how often the federal appeals court in New York has reversed Mukasey in the past seven years. In criminal cases, he was reversed 20 percent of the time, compared with an overall reversal rate from his court of about 15 percent in 2006. But in civil cases, his 24 percent reversal rate compared favorably with the overall rate of about 30 percent.

His decisions almost always start with an exceptionally detailed account of the facts, often coupled with a keen awareness of how hard it is to know anything for sure.

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