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

He reached the Dachau concentration camp on the day it was liberated.
"I saw the corpses and the grisly appearance of the people. I saw the ovens there," he says.

"I was obviously overwhelmed by the tragedy of it and the inhumanity of it. In fact, it upset me so much, seeing both places [Dachau and Buchenwald] and other things I knew about and heard about, that I didn't go visit my relatives [in Germany] after that for 40 years."

In 1946, Muecke moved his wife and son to Phoenix because he heard it was a good place to raise a family--he had two more children here--and because he'd been offered three jobs, all of which he took in succession. He was full of New Deal ethics and enthusiasm.

"Of course, if you endorse the New Deal nowadays, they call you a radical, too," he jokes.

By Arizona standards, he was more than a radical. He was an Easterner and a union man in an antilabor state.

At first he went to work as a lobbyist for a $9 million bond issue to build an airport, sewers and water lines. And when the election was over, because he'd edited the student newspaper at William and Mary, he was offered a job as a reporter for the Arizona Times, a muckraking liberal newspaper founded by Franklin Roosevelt's daughter, Anna Roosevelt Boettinger. However, Phoenix wasn't ready for reform, and when the paper went under, Muecke went to work as an organizer for the restaurant and bartenders' union. Then the union went bust on the state's right-to-work law, and so Muecke, at age 32, enrolled in the University of Arizona Law School.

"He was full of piss and vinegar," says Jay Dushoff, one of Muecke's early law partners, and he threw himself into progressive issues, especially civil rights.

Phoenix had literacy laws to keep blacks from voting, right up until the 1960s; Chief Supreme Court Justice William Rehnquist had been a Republican poll watcher in Phoenix, and is alleged by some accounts to have harassed and intimidated minority voters. In the late '40s when Muecke arrived, a black could be arrested for trying to order a meal at the lunch counter of the drugstore on the corner of Central Avenue and Washington Street.

Muecke's first experience with segregation here occurred shortly after his arrival in Phoenix. He'd gone with his wife to see a movie at what is now the Orpheum Theatre. They arrived after the lights were already turned down, and they slipped through the dark into seats in the balcony.

A moment later, someone tapped him on the shoulder and whispered, "You'll have to go downstairs."

It was an usherette. When he asked why he had to move, she answered, "Because you're in the colored section."

He looked around and noticed the black faces for the first time. Then he refused to move.

In 1953, barely out of law school, Muecke was lead attorney on a lawsuit brought to desegregate the Wilson School District, and he won it, before the Supreme Court's 1954 landmark decision, Brown v. Board of Education, outlawed segregated schools.

Stewart Udall served as a consultant on the desegregation case; Muecke had been a reporter when he first met Udall. The county attorney who opposed the case was Bill Mahoney. The three would become close friends.

Congressman Stewart Udall had supported Adlai Stevenson through two bids for the presidency, but as the 1960 election approached, he felt that the senator from Massachusetts, John Kennedy, with whom he worked on labor-reform bills, had a better chance at winning.

"The night that Congress quit, I went home and went to work for him, lighting up people in my district," Udall remembers. "I did this quietly, because Eugene Pulliam and the Arizona Republic were furious when they discovered that Kennedy had stolen Arizona from [Lyndon] Johnson."

Muecke was chairman of the Maricopa County Democratic party and worked with Udall and Mahoney to lock up delegate votes for Kennedy in the Democratic National Convention. When Kennedy was elected, he paid back his Arizona connection: Udall became secretary of the Interior, Mahoney was made ambassador to Ghana, and Muecke was appointed U.S. attorney for the District of Arizona.

Muecke was sworn in on March 17, 1961, when he was 43 years old.
"I take on the job with humility and the earnest desire to do the best I can," he said after the swearing-in ceremony.

By most accounts, he was an aggressive U.S. attorney. Among other things, he investigated complaints that Republicans were harassing black voters--an allegation that was never proven.

"I really enjoyed being U.S. attorney more than being judge," he says. "You did more. You worked with the grand jury and you investigated, and then you prosecuted. As a judge, you're cut off from everybody. And people don't treat the U.S. attorney the way they treat a judge, who they shun, primarily to show they aren't kissing his ass to get favors from him. And as a judge, you decide cases that irritate your friends."

He was on the fast track to a judgeship. Judge Dave Ling, who was retiring, took Muecke aside and told him, "I heard you're a son of a bitch," and then told him he endorsed him as his replacement. Ling, Muecke says, once called him into his office and poured himself a glass of bourbon. When Muecke reminded him that alcohol was not allowed in the court building, he claims that Ling responded, "I know, young man, I'm trying to get rid of it as quickly as possible."

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