WASHINGTON – Speeding through arguments in front of the Supreme Court, Attorney General Michael Mukasey didn't let time hang heavy on his hands Tuesday.
Only time will tell, however, if it will ultimately be on Mukasey's side in the case of the Millennium Bomber.
The terse attorney general brought his first and likely his only case to the nation's high court, asking justices to reinstate a dropped explosives charge against convicted terrorist Ahmed Ressam. At issue was whether the would-be bomber should be sentenced to 10 years in prison for carrying explosives in his car as part of his penalty for lying to U.S. border agents in December 1999.
Several skeptical justices indicated that linking two potentially unrelated offenses amounted to a legal stretch.
"Could Congress pass a law that said if you wear a wristwatch during the commission of any crime, you get another 10 years?" Justice Antonin Scalia asked.
Mukasey scoffed at Scalia's extreme example.
"A statute like that would be entirely unreasonable," the attorney general said.
Pressing the point, Scalia said, "surely it depends on what the felony is. If the felony is the filing of a dishonest tax return and you have a can of gasoline with you when you mail the letter, it seems to me quite as absurd as saying wearing a wristwatch in the course of a felony. That's what troubles me about this."
In all, however, Mukasey received a generally gentle hearing from the demanding court, to whom he outlined the government's case crisply and with more confidence than he usually has with Congress or the news media. He whipped through his arguments in about 19 minutes -- short of the half-hour he was given -- and dedicated at least five minutes afterward to posing for pictures with his family and aides.
Nattily dressed in a black morning coat with tails and gray trousers, Mukasey took no questions from reporters as he left the gleaming marble white front steps of the court on the sun-drenched afternoon. His appearance was as much ceremony as a necessary legal process: It's a long-standing tradition for attorneys general to argue at least one case before the Supreme Court.
The last to do so was Janet Reno, in 1996. President Bush's first two attorneys general, John Ashcroft and Alberto Gonzales, skipped the honor.
Mukasey, a former federal judge, told reporters last week that he decided to do his bit when he was first introduced to the Supreme Court after being sworn in as attorney general in November.
"I sort of threw my cap over the wall and said, hey, I think I'd like to do that," Mukasey recounted. "And then we had discussions back and forth about when and which, and so on and so forth, in the Ressam case."
Ressam, who was nabbed at the U.S.-Canadian border with a trunk load of explosives, initially was convicted of nine counts of plotting to bomb Los Angeles International Airport around Jan. 1, 2000. But the San Francisco-based 9th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals tossed out one of the charges: for carrying explosives during the commission of another serious crime.
The appeals court said the law required prosecutors to show the explosives were carried "in relation to" the felony -- or, in Ressam's case, lying on a U.S. Customs form. Mukasey asked the justices to reverse the appeals court and give prosecutors the power to penalize terrorists as much as possible.
"So if a prosecutor asks for it and there is an underlying felony and there is an explosive, that's an additional ten years, no matter what?" Chief Justice John Roberts asked.
"That's an additional ten years, no matter what," Mukasey said.
Mukasey's legal opponent, Seattle public defender Thomas W. Hillier II, said the government could have saved everyone time if it had simply changed the way it brought the charges against Ressam. At a minimum, Hillier said, the Justice Department's case is unclear and confusing, and "it should be construed in favor of the defendant."
After the arguments, Hillier said it seemed impossible to tell whose side the court ultimately would take. He called Mukasey "a very nice man."
"I think he did great," Hillier said. "I'm sure he was nervous. It's not easy to be anything other than nervous when you're in front of those nine."
The case is U.S. v. Ressam, 07-455.