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

When that case settled, Muecke had told the papers, "I don't relish the supervision of the prison being placed on this court," and, "Courts should interfere as little as possible with the administration of a prison."

Those words would echo back to him more than 20 years later.
In 1990, Lewis decided to change the mail allowances because, perhaps with good logic, he felt that with the increased prison population, the staff would be overwhelmed by the task of screening all the packages for contraband. Later, with Governor Symington's blessing, he rescinded the prisoners' rights to subscribe to skin magazines.

A prison advocacy group protested, and Muecke felt that if Lewis wanted to change the terms of the consent decree, he would have to go through the legal process to do so. Otherwise, he was violating a binding contract.

Those are the facts of those cases. What came to be perceived as the truth was another matter altogether.

Symington took office in 1991 and took up the banner of states rights, which he waved boldly and opportunistically in Lewis' defense.

"Sam Lewis did not begin to act up in Hook until Symington became governor," says Andy Gordon, an attorney who became involved in the contempt citations against Lewis that would be filed later. "I have no question that it was a Symington political move to find every cause he could to take on the federal judiciary. And what they did in Hook and in Gluth and in Casey, too, was not just ignore federal court orders, but intentionally violate them."

Among Muecke's greatest detractors was the Phoenix Gazette's editorial writer Mark Genrich, who hammered relentlessly at Muecke for the remainder of the judge's career, even going so far as to say that his own Christmas wishes would be complete if Muecke were removed from the bench.

Muecke remained quiet because of judicial ethics while the papers and Symington were calling him names and accusing Muecke of running DOC, and while the Department of Corrections was trying to get Muecke thrown off the cases. The Ninth U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals, however, was affirming most of Muecke's prison decisions.

When Lewis made his order on skin magazines, Muecke held him in contempt.
Symington made his contempt for Muecke clear by calling for Muecke's impeachment.

On June 12, 1994, Symington kicked the spin into high gear with a guest editorial published in the Arizona Republic under the headline, "Judge Muecke's inmate wish list goes $10 million too far."

The judge, Symington wrote, would cost the state $10 million with his prison cases.

"Judge Muecke was not elected by the citizens of Arizona. He has no right to determine whether our tax dollars should be spent on privileges for criminals. Yet granting privileges to Arizona inmates has become Judge Muecke's obsession, an obsession that has led him to ignore his proper judicial obligations."

What those proper obligations were was unclear. Federal judges could be impeached for "high crimes and misdemeanors," Symington wrote. Muecke's high crime was meddling in state affairs.

Also unclear was the origin of the $10 million price tag. The next week in open court, Muecke asked the defendants' lawyers to present the evidence supporting the governor's statement. After 10 days of hemming and hawing, no firm and final figures could be produced.

The quality of the governor's financial statements has been well-documented in other courtrooms since then.

Symington began his 1995 State of the State address with the kind of battle cry that was popular among right-wing politicians before the bombing of the federal building in Oklahoma City.

"We have endured it all--until finally, from across two centuries, from the founders of our country, came the call for us to stand up like Americans. From the recorded insights of Thomas Jefferson came the pointed reminder that a little rebellion now and then is a good thing."

He was warming up, and then cut to the specifics.
"Our voice will be heard on the subject of federal judges pre-empting executive authority in state prisons. If a fight is what they want, a fight is what they will get. At minimum, I urge you to pass legislation forbidding the payment of tax dollars to the so-called 'special masters' appointed to run state-prison functions--an Orwellian term if I ever heard one."

The Legislature complied by passing just such a bill. And the subsequent refusal to pay the special masters in the three prison cases brought new contempt charges down on Lewis.

On August 24, 1995, the very day that motions were filed to hold Sam Lewis in contempt of his court, Muecke in another case imposed an injunction forbidding any logging in Arizona and New Mexico.

The Mexican spotted owl case had started percolating in 1994, when environmentalists realized that the U.S. Forest Service was permitting logging without undergoing the proper consultations with the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service on how that logging was affecting the endangered Mexican spotted owl.

The case had landed in Muecke's court by the luck of the draw. Muecke found in favor of the plaintiffs and asked the Fish and Wildlife Service to designate critical habitat for the species. When the environmentalists found memos showing that the Fish and Wildlife Service had no intention of doing so, Muecke started to threaten contempt charges against the service, but to no avail.

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