MisJudged

U.S. District Court Judge Carl Muecke ruled on the letter of the law, but his liberal views and tough courtroom style made him the judge that conservatives love to hate

The message from the president was not memorable, an obligatory platitude on the occasion of the judge's retirement, a well-deserved thanks for 36 years of service to his country, but it brought tears to the old man's eyes.

"I have a tendency to cry on certain occasions," the judge said. "I'm not proud of it, but as you get older, it gets worse."

This judge, however, Carl A. Muecke, had a reputation for sternness on the bench that in at least one instance made an attorney cry.

Before the judge got up to make his farewell remarks, one of the speakers had pointed out that there had been no retirements of federal judges in recent years. They'd been carried out in coffins.

Muecke remarked that at least by retiring, "You get to hear what will be said at your funeral."

Indeed, there was a funereal look to the courtroom on that February morning, the judges in robes, the lawyers in suits, the Catholic bishop, the former mayor, the former congressman, the judge's wife and three grown children and grandchildren sitting in the front row.

It was a death of sorts, the death of a liberal voice on the federal bench in Arizona.

Carl Muecke had been controversial since he arrived in Phoenix more than 50 years ago. He'd been appointed U.S. attorney by President John Kennedy, and worked closely with Attorney General Robert Kennedy. His nomination to the bench was in the works when JFK was assassinated.

He'd tackled nearly every controversial issue that shaped the past four decades: desegregation, the death penalty, the draft. Ernesto Miranda, for whom the Miranda decision was named; Ned Warren, the swindler; Cesar Chavez, the legendary farm-labor leader, all passed through his courtroom.

"Carl was always on the liberal side, but he was very steady," says his longtime friend Stewart Udall. "I'd characterize him as a person of steady convictions rather than a fiery individual."

In an age when the word "liberal" has taken on a pejorative connotation, he wore it like a badge. He once called a New Times reporter who had written that there were no liberal judges in Arizona, and angrily exclaimed, "I am a liberal."

"Judge Muecke is a lasting symbol of Kennedy justice," says Phoenix attorney David Bodney. "To judicial activists, he is a profile in courage and an inspiration. To conservative jurists, he is precisely the opposite."

Truly, in the 1990s, he became a symbol of the ideological split between human rights and states' rights. In the tradition of his generation of jurists, he remained quiet on the issues, but ruled according to the letter of the law as he read it. To this day, he refuses to speak ill of the politicians who held him up derisively as that symbol.

Still, his name was everywhere in the news, pilloried by Governor Fife Symington, by loggers and legislators and newspapermen, accusing him of overstepping the bounds of his office and imposing his outdated liberal will on the state government.

Though he was supposed to be semiretired, he took on a series of controversial prison cases and imposed the injunction that has shut down logging in the Southwest for the past two years.

He fought fiercely with the Arizona Department of Corrections over its policies and with the U.S. Forest Service over the Mexican spotted owl.

Muecke felt he was defending the law against government agencies that were deliberately flouting it. His unwillingness to back down on his opinions is the reason that judges are appointed for life, but his stubbornness was mistaken for arrogance.

And perhaps on occasion, he was arrogant. But so was his opposition, in spades.

Using characteristic overstatement, opportunism and the kind of informed research on the issues that you can gather in a barbershop, Symington held him up as the epitome of an overreaching federal government meddling with the rights and affairs of the state.

Symington ignored the facts, perhaps, in favor of what he believed to be higher truths.

"You tell me what is the difference between rhetoric and policy these days," says former Symington aide Chuck Coughlin. "Judge Muecke was clearly out of step with public opinion. And you ask yourself, why is this guy still on the federal bench after all these years and still taking the kinds of cases that are affecting thousands of lives? . . . He's been such a consistent liberal voice on the court, and he's taken it upon himself to make some rather unpopular rulings as it relates to Arizona's economy--number one, on the environment; and number two, on inmate rights. If people really cared about inmate rights that much, Joe Arpaio's popularity wouldn't be at 80 percent."

Symington called for Muecke's impeachment, and rattled vaguely about civil disobedience and state rebellion.

Muecke was hanged in effigy by loggers and ridiculed in the press, notably in the Arizona Republic and Phoenix Gazette.

"We were the perfect target," says Muecke's former law clerk Mary Wade, "because we couldn't answer."

Furthermore, through much of the conflict, he was laid up in bed recovering from three major surgeries in as many years, though he would not let that be known to his enemies.

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