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Tuesday, April 22, 2008

Michael Mukasey’s Tenure Still Proves Disappointing

Legal Times published a profile yesterday on Attorney General Michael Mukasey’s tenure at the Justice Department. It appears to praise his leadership as well as his supposed efforts to “liberat[e] the department from political influences.” Referencing several “decisions to overturn policies…put in place by Alberto Gonzales,” the article seems to imply that the many concerns expressed by “critics outside of the department” are unjustified. We would certainly disagree with this assessment.

While it briefly mentions his controversial positions on “waterboarding, warrantless surveillance and expanded presidential powers,” the piece spends much more time focusing on ways in which Mukasey is unlike his predecessors. But when we set the bar that low, anyone seems like an improvement. It seems to us that mere competence does not in itself determine the quality of an attorney general but rather his or her independence and respect for the rule of law. And in that sense, Attorney General Michael Mukasey’s tenure has proved rather disappointing.

The article points to the absence of John Tanner from the Voting Rights Section of the Civil Rights Division, supposedly “one of its last polarizing figures” as evidence of an increase in morale at Justice as a whole. But the Civil Rights Division, which Legal Times acknowledges “suffered from years of friction…usually over differences in the direction of voter-fraud and voter-ID initiatives” is now being led by Grace Chung Becker, whose controversial nomination to the post of Assistant Attorney General for the Civil Rights Division can’t even make it out of committee.

Yesterday’s piece also points to Mukasey’s decision to lift a ban on DOJ Pride activities put in place by Gonzales and Ashcroft as proof of his benevolent leadership. Yet again, this evidence does not paint a complete picture of the department’s direction. The scandal surrounding the dismissal of Justice Department lawyer, Leslie Hagen, after rumors of her sexuality reached her supervisors set off a media firestorm. The controversy has even sparked an inquiry by Senate Judiciary Committee Chair Patrick Leahy (D-VT) and Ranking Member Arlen Specter (R-PA) to determine whether Hagen was “discriminated against in employment decisions on the basis of alleged sexual orientation or other improper factors.” While Hagen’s dismissal occurred during Gonzales’ tenure, little has been done by Mukasey to resolve the situation.

While Michael Mukasey is certainly an improvement on former Attorney General Alberto Gonzales, his tenure has displayed more of the same in regards to the department's strong defense of controversial White House policies. As we said in a blog post back in January, “during [his] confirmation hearings only a few short months ago, Democratic and Republican leadership alike encouraged Mukasey to provide an independent voice and to give new direction to the Justice Department. Unfortunately, his tenure has yet to put public fears to rest.” While Legal Times may view his term there in a different light, we still see a department shrouded in the shade of secrets.

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