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

Muecke received the first paperwork for the application to the judgeship in late 1963; it was dated November 22, the day Kennedy was shot in Dallas. The actual appointment then came from Kennedy's successor, Lyndon Johnson.

Muecke had the strong support of Senator Carl Hayden. He'd worked closely with Bobby Kennedy, who, as attorney general, had a hands-on style with his U.S. attorneys. And he also had the endorsement of J. Edgar Hoover, because of the strong recommendation of the FBI bureau chief in Phoenix.

But the appointment caused an uproar in Arizona. Not only was Muecke a labor man in an antilabor state, he wasn't part of the old-boy network. Judgeships in Arizona generally went to the lawyers from the big establishment firms.

Even as U.S. attorney, Muecke had been harassed by the establishment. He'd lost his Marine Reserve command while being investigated of mysterious McCarthylike charges.

Senator Barry Goldwater, then heading into his unsuccessful presidential campaign, wrote a letter denouncing Muecke to the chairman of the selection committee.

"The President, I understand, has sent the name of Carl Muecke to your committee for consideration as a district judge in Arizona," he wrote. "I understand that the Arizona State Bar has judged this man to be incompetent and I further know the vast majority of Arizona lawyers, I would say approaching 100 percent, are violently opposed to this man being appointed."

In fact, the Arizona Bar had voted 480 to 302 in Muecke's favor, with 120 abstaining.

The Senate confirmation hearing was held September 1, 1964. Carl Hayden accompanied Muecke to it. Senator Olin Johnston, a Democrat from South Carolina, began the questioning, and as Muecke recounts the moment, he affects a deep Southern accent.

"Then we have a letter here from the junior senator from Arizona," Johnston said, "but we won't pay that no mind since the senior senator is for you."

Senator Everett Dirksen of Illinois arrived late. Now Muecke drops his voice to imitate the Republican's famous gravelly tones.

"Young man, why were you investigated in the Marine Corps?" Dirksen asked.
Muecke responded with his own question: "Isn't it true that after two years of investigation there was nothing on my record?"

Dirksen held out for most of the rest of the month. But on September 29, 1964, Carl Muecke was confirmed as a federal judge.

"He was tough to appear before as an advocate," says Phoenix attorney Paul Eckstein. "Whatever side you were on, even if you were on a side that by his instinct he would support. He could be short. He was not someone who tolerated any kind of equivocation in the courtroom. I would say his demeanor was on the gruff side."

He once fined a lawyer for showing up a half-hour late to court and keeping a jury waiting.

At the same time, he could be very lenient to those convicted in his court, and his creative sentences were both heralded and condemned, but they were certainly talked about.

The magazine The Nation lauded him when he sentenced a draft dodger to three years probation, provided he worked for the government or a nonprofit or charitable organization. He reduced the fine for five youths convicted of drug possession to just $1,000 each, provided they worked to pay it themselves instead of getting the money from their parents.

And over 30 years, he hit all of the high-water-mark issues that defined the era: He presided over the desegregation order and consent decree that created magnet schools at the Phoenix Union High School District as an alternative to busing. He ruled on Ernesto Miranda's burglary charge--Miranda's rape confession had led to the Miranda Decision regarding the rights of arrested persons. He handled a phase of the Don Bolles murder case; the reporter had been a friend to the judge. He knocked down prayer in Chandler schools. He ordered the City of Yuma to allow performances of the nude musical Oh, Calcutta!. He ruled that a state bill that forbade aliens from claiming unemployment compensation was unconstitutional.

In 1979, he was part of a three-judge panel that threw out a state law directed against migrant workers by outlawing strikes during harvest season. The case pitted Cesar Chavez and the United Farm Workers against the agribusiness establishment.

The only controversial issue that Muecke seems not to have treated is abortion.

"I never had an abortion case in my court," he says.
But, in fact, in 1971, he and two other judges refused to strike down a state antiabortion law contested by Planned Parenthood and attorneys from his old firm.

"He was a strong activist. He was involved in about every progressive organization. His blind spot, if you will, is anything to do with the Catholic Church," says Jay Dushoff, his former partner.

Muecke has heard the criticism before.
"Well, I happen not to agree with the Church's opinion on abortion," he says. "And I don't approve of its opinion on birth control. I would say I am pro-choice, but I don't think abortion should be taken lightly. I think the big problem is we don't have sex education and that's why I think the whole thing is stupid."

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