WASHINGTON - Retired federal judge Michael B. Mukasey was sworn in yesterday as the nation's 81st attorney general, filling a vacancy left when Alberto R. Gonzales resigned amid questions about his credibility.
Mukasey was sworn in at a private Justice Department ceremony about 16 hours after he narrowly won Senate confirmation. The third attorney general of the Bush administration, Mukasey, 66, inherits a Justice Department struggling to restore its independent image with more than a dozen vacant leadership jobs and little time to make many changes before another president takes office.
Brian Roehrkasse, Justice Department spokesman, said Mukasey was joined by family members at the closed-door ceremony, which lasted two to three minutes. After taking the oath, Mukasey headed immediately into meetings with senior Justice Department officials, including a briefing on the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act.
Mukasey "got right to work," Roehrkasse said.
Mukasey served nearly two decades as a federal district judge in New York City and oversaw many of the nation's highest-profile terror cases in the aftermath of the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks. He now has 14 months to turn around the demoralized Justice Department and its 110,000 employees after almost a year of scandal that forced the resignation of his predecessor and cast doubt on the government's ability to prosecute cases fairly.
Andrew Kent, a constitutional law professor at Fordham Law School in the Bronx, said it's unclear how much Mukasey can get done.
"It just seems inconceivable that there'd be any major changes in legal policy, in the president's approach to the war on terror, at the behest of an outsider to the administration - which is what Mukasey is," Kent said.
Mukasey's first full day on the job will be Tuesday. A public swearing-in ceremony is being planned for next week, and Mukasey is expected to address Justice Department employees for the first time afterward.
The Senate confirmed Mukasey minutes before midnight Thursday by a 53-to-40 vote, which critics noted marked the narrowest margin to confirm an attorney general in more than 50 years.
His confirmation briefly stalled over his refusal to say whether he considers the interrogation tactic known as waterboarding a form of illegal torture.
But Mukasey made clear to senators he won't tolerate politics influencing decisions about prosecuting cases or hiring career attorneys - allegations being investigated in an ongoing inquiry into last year's firings of nine US attorneys.
The scandal tarnished the Justice Department's independent image and prompted a flood of resignations from senior officials.