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

Finally, on February 21, he yielded to the wishes of his wife, Vickie, and retired, one day past his 79th birthday.

Stewart Udall had hoped to speak at the retirement ceremony, but he never got the chance.

"Carl was always a target in Arizona because he was the most liberal judge," Udall says. "But I had the feeling in that room that day, because of what was said; I know quite a few of the federal judges. Although some of them may have looked askance at his liberal views, I think they all respected his integrity, because he wrote his opinions and made his judgments on the basis of his view of the law. He was not distorting the law, he was upholding the law."

Toward the end of the ceremony, Judge Robert Broomfield took the microphone and calmly asked everyone to evacuate the courtroom because there was a fire on the floor above.

It turned out to be only smoking wires in a circuit box, but the thought on everyone's mind was that the perennial threats against the judge had come home to roost.

Carl Muecke moves slowly on his daily walk through the forest near his Flagstaff summer home. He leans on a walking stick because he's had both hips replaced and has had major surgery on his back.

"That was from running up and down these mountains here, thinking I was a young Marine and enjoying it immensely," he says.

His clerks have said he was astounded when his robust body began failing a few years back, especially under the strain of his last years in office.

He stands just over six feet tall. He has white hair and a handsome, somewhat ashen face, and he holds his lips tightly over his teeth as if in expression of the tension between judicial demeanor--which dictates silence and discretion--and the urge to spill his thoughts.

And he loves to talk, the memories flowing out of him in no particular order, unstuck in time, each one triggering a hundred more before the first is finished.

There is a story by the Argentine writer Jorge Luis Borges called "Funes the Memorious." It's about a man whose memory is so vivid and complete that he has to take to bed to limit his experiences so that he will not be burdened with more to remember.

Muecke evokes that character.
He recalls slights and errors in articles written about him two decades ago. He spins tales of goodwill and dirty deeds from three quarters of a century, sings German ditties from his childhood, comments wisely on current events.

He reads voraciously, and he boasts a library of more than 17,000 books, so many that he has had to box them and store them in a shed behind his Paradise Valley home.

He is grandfatherly and courteous. He dotes on his friends, and on his former law clerks, most of whom he worked long and hard, keeping them from lunch, sending them back to the stacks for precedents, calling them a dozen times a day.

The kindly old man, however, stands in stark contrast to his judicial persona.

When he was on the bench, he sat up high, and his voice was the thundering voice of Zeus. Even those attorneys who won cases in his court were afraid of him.

One attorney at his retirement ceremony recalls the judge shouting at him, "What are you doing?"

"I don't know what I'm doing," the attorney stammered.
"Well, do it faster," the judge snapped back.
Ranchers in Catron County, New Mexico, would refer to him as that judge in Phoenix that the environmentalists had in their back pocket. The enviros, after all, had convinced him to shut down logging because of the U.S. Forest Service's refusal to evaluate spotted-owl populations. In fact, the attorneys who engineered that injunction were terrified of pushing his patience too far.

Once when New Times happened upon an unpublicized court hearing in Flagstaff, Mark Hughes, one of the environmental lawyers, worried that the reporter's presence would throw the judge into a rage and bring a contempt citation down on his head. Later in the case, when a Department of Justice attorney assaulted Hughes during a negotiation session outside the courtroom, Hughes refused to press charges, again for fear of calling undue attention and invoking the judge's wrath.

Muecke now dismisses those fears as exaggerated. But Hughes is by no means the only lawyer to have tread lightly in his courtroom.

The attorney comments in Muecke's profile in the Almanac of the Federal Judiciary are bipolar, alternately describing him as brilliant and stupid, good and evil.

"He is extremely able in the areas of civil rights and prisoner's rights," reads one comment, although it's hard to say whether that is a sincere statement or a left-handed compliment.

"He is very discourteous to attorneys and participants in the courtroom." "He is pompous and indifferent to any point of view other than his own," read others.

And again: "He has a lot of judicial courage."
"Constitutional law has changed so radically in the 30-plus years of his judicial tenure," says David Bodney. "Judge Muecke's brand of political activism was once widely heralded as law as a positive vehicle for social change."

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