WASHINGTON - When Rudy Giuliani was set to become mayor of New York in 1994, he wanted former colleague and longtime friend Michael Mukasey to perform the swearing-in. But there was a hitch. The ceremony was set for a Saturday and Mukasey is an Orthodox Jew. So the swearing-in was delayed until Sunday to allow Mukasey to preside over it without breaking the Sabbath.
Mukasey might soon have to contemplate what day to hold his own swearing-in ceremony. On Monday, he was nominated by President George W. Bush to be the next attorney-general of the United States. Democratic senators, who must confirm the nomination, have so far indicated they won't oppose the appointment, though they are threatening to delay a vote until the White House complies with demands to provide documents in ongoing investigations.
Mukasey would replace Alberto Gonzales, who resigned last month under a hail of protest. White House officials have indicated that Mukasey was selected in part because they think he can avoid a bruising, partisan confirmation battle.
"The president wanted to get the person that he thought was the most qualified," said one senior administration official. "Obviously, if that same person with the same qualifications would also be easier to confirm or would have a more realistic ability to be confirmed, that would be a factor that was considered."
Mukasey has been widely praised for his integrity and intelligence, and has won kudos from prominent Democrats as well as Republicans. Appointed to the federal bench by then-US president Ronald Reagan in 1987, he's not considered to be an ideologue. Until he retired as chief judge of the Southern District in 2006, he sided with the White House in many - though not all - of the national security-related cases that passed under his gavel. His record on social issues such as abortion is less clear, and has led some conservatives to question Bush's choice.
Mukasey is most well-known for his involvement in several high-profile terrorism-related cases, including that of Jose Padilla, issuing material witness warrants post-September 11, and the trial of the "blind sheikh," Omar Abdel Rahman, for trying to blow up the World Trade Center in 1993.
In that last case, his Jewishness became a point of contention for the defense, which argued that that he should recuse himself because of his religion and support of Israel. The prosecution dismissed the request as ludicrous, as did Mukasey.
As a result of that case, which ended with Rahman sentenced to life in prison, Mukasey and his wife spent the next decade trailed by a security detail to protect them from death threats. He then retired as a judge and returned to his New York law practice.
Dov Hikind, a New York state assemblyman from Brooklyn and an Orthodox Jew, remembers that case well, as he himself had been included on the hit list of Rahman's conspiracy. He praised Mukasey for his handling of the proceedings.
"My assessment and everyone's assessment is that this is a superb individual in every way, as a jurist, as a person," Hikind said.
Indeed, Mukasey is not lacking in colleagues and friends willing to say a good word about him.
Mukasey would be only the second Jewish attorney general in US history. The late Edward Levi, who was selected by Gerald Ford in 1975, was the grandson of Rabbi Emil G. Hirsch, a leader in the Reform movement.
"This is definitely a first and something that all of us are proud of," said Hikind of Mukasey's Orthodox background. "It's great for the Jewish community. It's great for Rudy Giuliani. It's great for America."â€¢