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Mukasey confirmation hearings

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I listened to NPR on the way home from Mary Anne's tonight, and there was a segment about retired judge Michael Mukasey's confirmation hearings for attorney general.

I've long been a fan of Senator (and Judiciary Committee chair) Patrick Leahy (D-VT). There's plenty I disagree with him about, but he's big on privacy and he seems to really understand the Internet in a way that I don't see from politicians very often. Also, how many senators have appeared in Batman TV shows and movies?

Anyway, so I wasn't surprised, but was nonetheless pleased, to hear Leahy's strong opening statement. Some excerpts:

[...]

Restoring the Department of Justice begins by restoring integrity and independence to the position of Attorney General of the United States. The Attorney General’s duty is to uphold the Constitution and the rule of law--not to work to circumvent it. Both the President and the Nation are best served by an Attorney General who gives sound advice and takes responsible action, without regard to political considerations--not one who develops legalistic loopholes to serve the ends of a particular administration. [...] The Attorney General is supposed to represent all of the American people, not just one of them.

Regrettably, the former Attorney General enabled this Administration to continue policies that are in fundamental conflict with American values, decades of law, sound military practice, international law, and human rights. [...]

We have seen departures from this country’s honorable traditions, practices, and established law in connection with interrogation methods that we condemn when they are used by others. Likewise, we have seen political influence corrupt the Department of Justice when it has departed from its longstanding practices and tradition, practices that historically serve to insulate it from partisanship in law enforcement.

[...]

To reclaim our moral leadership, we need to acknowledge wrongdoing. These hearings are about a nomination, but these hearings are also about accountability.

[...]

We are the most powerful Nation on earth, the most powerful Nation the world has ever known, a country that cherishes liberty and human rights, a Nation that has been a beacon of hope and freedom to the world. We face vicious enemies, and we need the confidence and the resolve to understand that we can and must defeat them without sacrificing our values and stooping to their level.

But what I wasn't expecting, because I can never quite keep track of what I've heard about him, was a similarly strong opening statement from Senator Arlen Specter (R-PA):

[...]

We start with a department which urgently needs a restoration of integrity and honesty and independence. [...]

The detainee situation is still a matter of some urgency. It casts a shadow over the administration of justice in America and holds us up for very substantial criticism worldwide.

[...]

And we have seen the signing statements, where the president has agreed, when we passed the Patriot Act, to accommodate detailed oversight and then on a signing statement, says, "I may not have to do that and may not be willing to do that under my Article II powers."

[...]

The conventional understanding of constitutional authority is when the Congress enacts legislation, presents it to the president and he signs it, that that's the law that he has to faithfully execute, under the Constitution.

And I'm awaiting an attorney general who will tell the president some things he may not like to hear.

All of that was really nice to hear. Specter also said some stuff that I don't agree with, but all in all, I found these statements really comforting. They restored some of my hope that some of those in power really do care about protecting the people of this country. I dunno, maybe a lot of it was rhetoric for the media, but it left me feeling glad that people like Leahy and Specter are looking out for us.

And I was even gladder to hear some excerpts of Mukasey's opening statement:

[...]

There are in a sense many cultures in [the Justice Department]. But all those apparently different cultures are united by shared values and standards. [...]

[T]he Justice Department's mission includes advising the other departments and agencies of government, including the President, on what choices they are free to make and what limits they face. Here too, the governing standard is what the law and Constitution permit and require.

I am here in the first instance to tell you, but also to tell the men and women of the Department of Justice, that those are the standards that guided the Department when I was privileged to serve 35 years ago, and those are the standards I intend to help them uphold if I am confirmed.

Because of the times in which we live, it was to be expected--as in fact happened--that many of you would discuss with me weighty and serious issues that sometimes seem to raise a conflict between liberty and security. A great Attorney General, perhaps the greatest to serve in the modern era, Robert Jackson, said that the issue between authority and liberty is not between a right and a wrong--that never presents a dilemma. The dilemma is because the conflict is between two rights, each in its own way important. That is why I have told you during those discussions, and may have occasion to repeat again here today, that protecting civil liberties, and people's confidence that those liberties are protected, is a part of protecting national security, just as is the gathering of intelligence to defend us from those who believe it is their duty to make war on us. We have to succeed at both. [...]

As I mentioned a moment ago, you have been generous with your time and your advice in the past couple of weeks. I believe that the Department's relationship with this Committee and with Congress is vital to fulfilling its mission. I want to assure you that, if confirmed, I will always appreciate and welcome your advice, as I have since my nomination, and that I and others in the Department will try to be available to you. In that spirit, I am ready to answer the questions you have for me today.

Okay, so NPR noted that Gonzales said much the same kind of thing during his own confirmation hearings. And various articles have noted that Mukasey more or less sidestepped several important questions, though he may have just been speaking legitimately carefully.

But still, the whole proceeding made me hopeful. And here's my favorite part:

"Torture is unlawful under the laws of this country," Mukasey said. "It is not what this country is all about. It is not what this country stands for. It's antithetical to everything this country stands for.

"Soldiers of this country liberated concentration camps toward the end of World War II and photographed what they saw there as a record of the barbarism we opposed. We didn't do it that so that we could then duplicate it ourselves."

(--"Nominee vows to keep politics away from U.S. Justice Department," International Herald Tribune, October 17, 2007)

Maybe he's blowing smoke. Maybe I'm being foolish. But I found that pretty inspiring. To me, it's a tremendous relief, and immensely reassuring, to hear a potential Attorney General saying this stuff.

Good luck, Judge Mukasey. I hope that if you become A.G., you serve the country with the integrity and dedication to principle that was evident in your words today.

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In case anyone else was wondering about Mukasey's reference to "Robert Jackson," he was presumably referring to Robert Houghwout Jackson, who (despite having a great middle name) served as A.G. for only a year or two in 1940-1941 before being appointed to the Supreme Court; Wikipedia sez he's "widely considered by legal scholars as one of the greatest Supreme Court justices in history." Interesting choice of name to drop. I'm assuming that his career as A.G. was more distinguished than the single sentence it receives in the Wikipedia article would suggest.

P.S.: If the confirmation hearings had occurred online, then someone would've had to invoke Godwin's Law after Mukasey's bit about the concentration camps. :)

P.P.S.: Speaking of Nazis, Jackson also served as US chief prosecutor (though Wikipedia says not an entirely effective one) at the first Nuremberg trial. If I hadn't liked what Mukasey said so much, I might be inclined to mock him for taking the easy path in indirectly declaring himself (twice!) to be anti-Nazi. I mean, if you want to take an uncontroversial stance, being anti-Nazi is about the easiest one to take.


In November 2005, John McCain wrote on torture in Newsweek Magazine on torture. His words are just as important today...here is an excerpt that I put on my blog at the time:

"Our enemies [in Vietnam] didn't adhere to the Geneva Conventions. Many of my comrades were subjected to very cruel, very inhumane and degrading treatment, a few of them unto death. But every one of us—every single one of us—knew and took great strength from the belief that we were different from our enemies, that we were better than them, that we, if the roles were reversed, would not disgrace ourselves by committing or approving such mistreatment of them. That faith was indispensable not only to our survival, but to our attempts to return home with honor. For without our honor, our homecoming would have had little value to us.

....

"Those who return to us and those who give their lives for us are entitled to that honor. And those of us who have given them this onerous duty are obliged by our history, and the many terrible sacrifices that have been made in our defense, to make clear to them that they need not risk their or their country's honor to prevail; that they are always—through the violence, chaos and heartache of war, through deprivation and cruelty and loss—they are always, always, Americans, and different, better and stronger than those who would destroy us."


Thanks, Jay! Good stuff.

Followup to my entry: I'm sorry to report that day two of the hearings didn't go nearly so well.

In particular, Mukasey "declined today to say if he considered harsh interrogation techniques like waterboarding, which simulates drowning, to constitute torture or to be illegal if used on terrorism suspects. [...And he] said the president’s authority as commander in chief may allow him to supersede laws written by Congress." ("Mukasey Faces Tough Questions on Interrogations," by Philip Shenon, New York Times, 18 October 2007.

Business as usual. Sucks to be us. Feh.


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