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

Then, at the end of the month, the U.S. Supreme Court overturned Casey. Justice Antonin Scalia wrote the opinion, but Justice Clarence Thomas twisted the knife.

"The Constitution charges federal judges with deciding cases and controversies, not with running state prisons," he wrote. "Yet, too frequently, federal district courts in the name of the Constitution effect wholesale takeovers of state correctional facilities and run them by judicial decree. This case is a textbook example."

Ironically, the case had been about prisoners' access to legal libraries, and not about who should run the prison.

Justice John Paul Stevens agreed in his dissent that Muecke's decree had been too specific in his directions to the prisons, but he noted that the state had repeatedly violated orders in the earlier Gluth case.

"I emphatically disagree, however, with the Court's characterization of who is more to blame for the objectionable character of the final order," Justice Stevens wrote. "Much of the blame for its breadth, I propose, can be placed squarely in the lap of the State."

And furthermore, his dissent continued, "One might have imagined that the State, faced with the potential of this 'inordinately--indeed wildly intrusive' remedial scheme [. . .], would have taken more care to protect its interests before the District Court and the special master, particularly given the express willingness of both to consider the State's objections. Having failed to zealously represent its interests in the District Court, the State's present complaints seem rather belated. . . ."

In other words, it had all been a show.

The logging case stayed in Muecke's court, with the Forest Service stonewalling on the orders to produce a biological opinion on the effects of logging on the spotted owl.

The service flagrantly violated the terms of the injunction on one occasion and allowed trees to be cut without Muecke's permission, and he again threatened to hold the agency's heads in contempt.

But essentially, the Forest Service was waiting Muecke out and it won. Muecke recused himself, and in December 1996, Judge Roger Strand lifted the logging injunction.

One day later, Chip Cartwright, the Southwest regional forester for the Forest Service, announced that the Forest Service would again violate the law. While the case had been in Muecke's court, the Forest Service grudgingy changed its forest plans--the blueprints that dictate how the forest is managed--to help protect spotted owls and goshawks. Federal law dictates that if the forest plans are changed, then all pending projects must conform to the new rules. Cartwright said otherwise. The same environmentalists immediately filed suit, but Judge Paul Rosenblatt denied their request to reimpose the injunction. When the environmentalists appealed Rosenblatt's decision, the Ninth Circuit overturned it and put the injunction back in effect. It remains in effect today.

Curiously, there was no public outcry about the decision.
"The presumption is that if Muecke imposes such an injunction, he's an owl lover," says attorney Jack Brown, an old friend of Muecke, "and if [some other judge] issues it, well, he's constrained by these crazy environmental laws."

Ironically, Muecke felt himself constrained by those same laws.
"This lawsuit involves a quagmire of congressional laws and regulations supposedly designed to protect threatened and endangered species, in this situation, the Mexican Spotted Owl," he wrote in an order scolding the Forest Service for violating the injunction. "Instead of providing clear and simple guidance to the parties and the court, Congress probably has created as many problems as it has solved. A major part of the responsibility for the logjam preventing the end of this injunction lies with Congress, not with the Court sworn to uphold and enforce the laws, even those Congress passes. This lawsuit also involves a fox guarding the henhouse."

And then in his conclusion, he drove his point home:
"This Court must require defendants to follow the law, as written by Congress. The grim reality of defendants' failure to do so means a continuing injunction, with the associated loss of money and hardship to local communities."

Now the judge lumbers through the forests on his daily walks near his Flagstaff home. He knows he has not saved the forests, but only postponed the day that the chain saws and bulldozers rip through them.

His dogs root along the forest floor, happily disturbing squirrels and lizards. The judge watches them as he ponders the past and the future.

He retired out of deference to his wife. If it had been up to him, he would probably have left the bench in a box, to try to make sure that someone looked out for the rights of the underprivileged, that somebody remembered civil rights and human rights, and the violations of those principles that he saw firsthand in Germany after World War II.

He still feels that every decision he ever rendered, he rendered with good intentions and a strict interpretation of the law.

And that's Carl Muecke's honest truth.

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