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

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. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by an NPR contractor. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of NPR’s programming is the audio record.

Renee Montagne, one of the best-known names in public radio, is a special correspondent and host for NPR News.
Ari Shapiro has been one of the hosts of All Things Considered, NPR's award-winning afternoon newsmagazine, since 2015. During his first two years on the program, listenership to All Things Considered grew at an unprecedented rate, with more people tuning in during a typical quarter-hour than any other program on the radio.

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