Dems Look To Grill Mukasey

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Politico.com

Dems Look To Grill Mukasey

by
Lisa Lerer

Having taken on two attorney generals, two U.S. Supreme Court nominees and a tight-lipped administration, the liberal lawyers have their sights set now on attorney general nominee Michael Mukasey.

"The nominee is not allowed to leave the [Judiciary] committee without making clear commitments," said Chris Anders, the ACLU's senior legislative counsel. "We are looking for yes-or-no answers."1017 05

For scores of progressive organizations, Mukasey's confirmation hearings are a long-awaited opportunity to air a dry cleaner's worth of dirty laundry. Liberal groups want more information about the mismanagement of the Justice Department, the administration's torture policies, a perceived lack of civil rights enforcement, illicit wiretapping and the sacking of nine U.S. attorneys.

Wednesday's hearing is their first big chance to get some answers. Finally, the liberal lawyers say, they have a Democratic-led Congress and a besieged administration desperately in need of an easy confirmation process.

"We're hoping the Senate Judiciary Committee shows some spine and doesn't let this nominee roll them," Anders said. "If there's anything this committee should have learned from the Gonzales experience, it was to get clear commitments up front."

Mukasey, the former chief judge of the Southern District of New York, will most likely face little opposition on Capitol Hill.

Widely seen as a compromise nominee, the Reagan appointee has collected endorsements across the political spectrum. On Tuesday, Judiciary Committee Chairman Sen. Patrick Leahy (D-Vt.) said Mukasey provided acceptable answers to key questions asked in private meetings and in letters.

If confirmed to replace Alberto Gonzales, who resigned this summer under a dark cloud, Mukasey will spend little more than a year in office.

Human rights, civil liberties, labor unions and other liberal groups say the hearing is less about Mukasey's credentials and more about getting documents and specific commitments to clean up the scandal-ridden department.

"We all saw the writing on the wall with the nomination," said Tanya Clay House, director of public policy for People For the American Way. "It changed our advocacy efforts to more [of] an issue-oriented campaign, pushing for things to not be swept under the rug."

Even so, if Mukasey doesn't give the right answers, the organizations are open to opposing his nomination.

For Congress, it's all about asking the tough questions. Nominees are experts at avoiding specific promises with lawyerly answers and evasive testimony. When the committee isn't fully prepped, said ACLU Washington Director Caroline Fredrickson, they rarely get useful promises. "The power to get anything on the record that's meaningful is at its maximum right now," she explained. "They can't let him get away with vagueness or refusal to commit."

Hoping to avoid more missteps, Human Rights Watch, the ACLU, Service Employees International Union and dozens of other liberal groups banded together to prep Congress. The organizations analyzed Mukasey's 18 years of published opinions. They shared their research with staffers, sending reports, briefing books and suggesting questions to the committee.

Surprisingly, Mukasey's long record as a federal judge doesn't provide Congress with much information. Although he spent almost two decades on the bench, Mukasey handled few national security cases.

Most famously, he presided over the 1995 conviction of Sheikh Omar Abdul Rahman and his associates for their role in the 1993 World Trade Center bombing. While hearing the case Mukasey was given bodyguards that he kept until he retired in 2005.

One ruling that will certainly come up in the hearing is his handling of the Jose Padilla case. In 2002, Mukasey first approved a material witness warrant, ruling the government could hold Padilla without charges as an enemy combatant. A year later, he went against the administration and ruled that Padilla deserved access to lawyers.

In an August Wall Street Journal article, Mukasey brought up problems with the material witness law and asserted that "current institutions and statues are not well suited" to fighting terrorism. He urged Congress to "turn their considerable talents to deliberating how to fix a strained and mismatched legal system."

More than Mukasey's record, however, the groups want Congress to examine his thoughts on past Justice Department policies.

Much of the questioning will focus on Mukasey's view of presidential power, particularly his view of executive privilege pushed by the White House.

Another major topic will be the politicization of the Justice Department. Former employees allege that Bush appointees to the agency pushed out career lawyers, politicized the hiring process and had frequent contact with the White House. As a result, say advocacy groups, the number of employment discrimination, voter fraud and fair housing cases brought by the department dropped dramatically.

The groups also want Mukasey, should he be confirmed, to agree to turn over documents detailing the broad surveillance of e-mails and phone calls in the United States. The White House has repeatedly refused to supply the information to the Judiciary Committee, sayingit falls under the protection of executive privilege.

They would also like Congress to see all the Justice Department memos addressing the legality of the government's detention and interrogations practices. So far, none of these memos have been supplied to the committee.

Mukasey should take their requests seriously, the groups say. If he fails to keep his promises, they vow to return to Congress. "This is not a useless exercise," House said. "We have congressional oversight now."

© 2007 Politico.com

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