The Old O.J. And A New A.G.

(CBS)
Lawyer Andrew Cohen analyzes legal affairs for CBS News and CBSNews.com.

O.J. Simpson's latest legal troubles affect only him, his alleged confederates, his purported victim, perhaps the families of Nicole Brown and Ron Goldman and any sorry souls who continue to make their living off his miserable existence. President George W. Bush's decision to nominate former federal judge Michael B. Mukasey to be the next Attorney General of the United States will impact the lives of all Americans now and into the immediate future. So guess which story the media decide is the one everyone wants to talk about?

Natch. The airwaves this morning were dedicated to torquing up Simpson's latest simple-minded escapade into something it is not: important legal news. And in the meantime the truly important legal news about a new Attorney General was relegated to second-tier status. "Was O.J.'s arrest designed to coincide with the publication of that book" about him, a radio host asked me this morning? I mean, really, how do you answer a question like that?

You don't. The Simpson arrest is a bug on the windshield of justice in America and news about it should be relegated to prime-time and the deepest recesses of cable news. The true news-you-can-use today is that President Bush, for one of the few times in his presidency, has selected a so-called "consensus" pick for an important cabinet-level position. He has wisely chosen compromise over conflict; moderation and experience over ideology and partisanship.

Mukasey is a good choice for attorney general, if not a perfect one, and perhaps the best news of about his nomination is that we likely get to avoid a nasty confirmation battle before the Senate Judiciary Committee. Mukasey has been called over the past 24 hours both "a lawyer's lawyer" and a "judge's judge," a quinella which alone makes him far more qualified for the position than his immediate predecessor, Alberto Gonzales. He's neither a Bush loyalist nor a Washington insider—two more reasons to believe he can restore integrity and credibility to the Justice Department.

The White House is touting his experience in terrorism-related cases and it should. Mukasey was very impressive when he presided over the 1993 terror trial of Omar Abdel Rahman, the blind sheik, and he demonstrated when he was involved in the Jose Padilla case that he wasn't always willing to go along with the Administration when it came to the rights of so-called "enemy combatants" during this time of terror. This experience surely will help him maneuver through the bureaucratic squalls that will pop up between now and the end of the Bush presidency in 2009.

On the other hand—and what story written by a lawyer about a lawyer would not have that phrase in it?—Mukasey has very little experience as a manager of a large group of people. When you are a federal judge the only people who say "no" to you are, occasionally, appeals court judges, and maybe, once in a while, an uppity court administrator. The universe is relatively small and, in the realm of federal district courts, there just aren't many actors who are ready, willing and able to stab you in the back. In other words, and relatively speaking, there is only a tiny bit of politics on the bench and Mukasey clearly has handled it well.

As leader of the Justice Department, however, Mukasey will have to herd many different prides of cats. The line prosecutors no doubt will welcome his "incisive" and "decisive" manner (two more words used this morning to describe him). But will he be able to talk the talk on Capitol Hill? Will he be able to protect Justice Department turf in a way his predecessor did not? Does he have the leadership experience to handle the day-to-day operations of a Department that has thousands of employees, many of whom have their own agendas?

Bright and dedicated people have a way of rising to new challenges so I think Mukasey will end up being a perfect "caretaker" attorney general; someone who can begin over the next 16 months or so to undo the damage his predecessor wrought upon the Department. And that's big news folks.
  • Andrew Cohen

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