Mukasey: A New Yorker For Attorney General

It would have been hard to find a replacement for former Attorney General Alberto Gonzales who didn’t seem like a breath of fresh air. Mr. Gonzales’s tenure at the Justice Department was so bad at so many levels that President Bush could have randomly chosen any member of the American Bar Association, fully expecting that he or she would be more competent than the departed attorney general.

Luckily, for the nation as well as the Justice Department, Mr. Bush has nominated a new attorney general with an independent record to replace a man who will be remembered as little more than a White House lackey. Retired federal judge Michael Mukasey is a New Yorker with solid credentials as both a jurist and a prosecutor. If confirmed, he will help restore the public’s confidence in a department that was scandalously politicized under Mr. Gonzales.

Before President Ronald Reagan appointed Mr. Mukasey to the federal bench in 1987, he served as a prosecutor in the U.S. Attorney’s office in Manhattan, where he worked with Rudolph Giuliani. When Mr. Giuliani became mayor in 1994, he chose Mr. Mukasey to administer the oath of office at his inauguration ceremonies. Although Mr. Mukasey has a reputation as a fair, nonpartisan jurist, he is not completely nonpolitical—he is an unpaid adviser to Mr. Giuliani’s presidential campaign.

Mr. Mukasey became chief judge of Southern District of New York, which is based in Lower Manhattan, in 2000, just in time to become a key figure in trials involving terrorism suspects. He also presided over the legal dispute between developer Larry Silverstein and his insurance companies after the destruction of the World Trade Center.

Whether you’re a judge, a third baseman, a newspaper columnist or a ballerina, it’s not easy playing on a New York stage. The city is filled with critics who are not especially shy about their opinions. Expectations are always high here, and when somebody fails to perform, the city is quick to render judgment.

Even so, Mr. Mukasey draws high marks from Republicans and Democrats alike—what a change from Mr. Gonzales. Senator Charles Schumer, an outspoken critic of the Gonzales Justice Department, has spoken highly of Mr. Mukasey’s competence and temperament, and in fact suggested that Mr. Mukasey would make a good attorney general earlier this year.

It will be a relief to see traditional conceptions of justice returned to the Justice Department. Mr. Mukasey’s task won’t be easy: He will be leading a demoralized department that has been a political patsy for the Bush administration, a place where politics seemed to trump justice at every turn. But New Yorkers have served this administration well in the past—think Colin Powell—and in the present, with former Goldman chairman Henry Paulson as secretary of the Treasury.

As a vital part of the war on terror, the Justice Department must be competent, must be free of the taint of politics, and must be seen as nonpolitical and nonpartisan. Alberto Gonzales failed miserably at that task. But perhaps, in his own way, he performed an important service. He showed Michael Mukasey how not to be the nation’s chief law enforcement official.