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Correction to This Article
This Sept. 18 Page One profile of Michael B. Mukasey said that the attorney general nominee is 12 years younger than his only sister. He is six years younger than his sister.

A Conservative Record, But Not in Lock Step

Judge Michael Mukasey swears in Rudolph W. Giuliani as mayor in 1994, alongside then-wife Donna Hanover Giuliani.
Judge Michael Mukasey swears in Rudolph W. Giuliani as mayor in 1994, alongside then-wife Donna Hanover Giuliani. (By Mark Lennihan -- Associated Press)

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By Amy Goldstein and Dafna Linzer
Washington Post Staff Writers
Tuesday, September 18, 2007

The first spring after the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks, the chief judge of the U.S. District Court for the Southern District of New York spoke out in favor of the assertive but highly controversial legal strategies the Bush administration was using to detain hundreds of Middle Eastern men as terrorism suspects.

The government was entirely justified in arresting such suspects on immigrations violations and holding "a very small number of people" for a considerable period on material-witness warrants, the judge, Michael B. Mukasey, told graduating students in the Brooklyn Law School class of 2002. Civil libertarians who criticized the detention campaign as an unprecedented or unauthorized use of federal powers were spreading "breathless half-truths and outright falsehoods," he said.

Mukasey's willingness to defend aggressive legal anti-terrorism measures before a tough audience helps to explain his appeal to President Bush, who nominated him yesterday as the next attorney general. Mukasey, 66, is a former Reagan-era federal prosecutor and private lawyer who served as a federal judge in New York's Manhattan for nearly two decades. Not a nationally prominent figure, he is best known in legal circles for presiding over two of the most high-profile terrorism cases that have come before the courts in recent years: the trial of the "blind sheik" Omar Abdel Rahman for plotting to blow up New York landmarks and the detention of Jose Padilla.

Those cases make him one of the few judges in the country who have as much real-world experience in legal issues surrounding counterterrorism efforts. Mukasey's views on national security law and executive power also reflect a steady, if not absolute, conservatism that dates to his days as a quiet outlier on a liberal campus as a Yale law student in the 1960s. It is a conservatism that can be seen in some of his most significant rulings and other writings over the past few years.

Mukasey is an Orthodox Jew who was raised in New York's Bronx, the only son in a family led by a father who ran coin laundries. He has taken a path through the Ivy League, worked at a law firm that represented such colorful clients as Roy Cohn and Claus von Bulow, and been appointed by President Ronald Reagan to one of the country's busiest federal courts. Since his days as a young prosecutor, he has been a close friend and political supporter of former mayor and current Republican presidential candidate Rudolph W. Giuliani.

Despite his successes, Mukasey has not displayed a driving ambition or political nature, according to lawyers, legal scholars, former law clerks, classmates and others who have known him over the years. He wields a razor-like sense of humor and can be stubborn about his ideas. "He's not an ideologue for the sake of being an ideologue," said Andrew Ruffino, a former law clerk of the nominee's. Said Bruce Ackerman, a Yale law professor who was a classmate of Mukasey's: "He is not a hyper-charged Federalist Society type. He is not a glad-hand networker."

Mukasey's record from the bench of about 1,500 published opinions consists mainly of non-ideological matters: dirty cops, entertainment-industry rivalries and immigrant-smugglers.

Mukasey grew up in an apartment building in the Bronx and was 12 years younger than his only sibling, a sister. He spent his college summers working for a lumber company, a beer distributor and United Press International.

Mukasey attended the Ramaz School, an Orthodox Jewish day school, and he remains heavily involved in that community. His wife, Susan, was the headmistress of the lower school. They are both members of Kehilat Jeshurun, an Orthodox synagogue with a politically conservative congregation on Manhattan's Upper East Side that is connected to the school. Another member of the congregation is Mukasey's friend Jay Lefkowitz, a former deputy domestic policy adviser to Bush who retains ties to the administration.

Mukasey attended Columbia University and then enrolled in Yale's law class of 1967. His fellow students included Sen. Joseph I. Lieberman (I-Conn.), the late Sen. Paul Tsongas (D-Mass.) and CBS senior political correspondent Jeff Greenfield. Ackerman remembers sitting in classrooms with Mukasey "and he had a more conservative disposition."

After Yale, Mukasey joined a New York law firm and, in 1972, became an assistant U.S attorney in the criminal division of the Southern District of New York. He was chief of the official corruption unit in his final year.

That experience could make Mukasey's attitudes toward federal prosecutors markedly different from those of Alberto R. Gonzales, who was forced to resign as attorney general after controversial firings of U.S. attorneys and other efforts to rein in their autonomy. Mukasey "has longstanding ties and love and respect for the U.S. attorney's office," said Daniel C. Richman, a Columbia law school professor and former federal prosecutor in New York.


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