The confirmation hearing of Michael Mukasey, who's been nominated for attorney general, has examined many contentious national security policies put in place by the Bush administration since 9/11, along with the politics that rocked the Justice Department under Alberto Gonzales.
Though the former federal judge is expected to be confirmed as the nation's 81st attorney general, the members of the Senate Judiciary Committee have expressed concern over the lingering controversy at the Justice Department regarding allegations of political influence taking precedence over the administration of law -- charges that boiled over during Gonzales' tenure.
The committee's top Republican, Sen. Arlen Specter of Pennsylvania, said at the start of the hearing that the Justice Department "urgently needs a restoration of integrity and honesty and independence" and faced "serious allegations of political influence" under Gonzales.
Mukasey assured the panel that he believes the rule of law should govern the Justice Department, not politics.
While Mukasey noted the different "cultures" present in the various Justice Department branches across the country, he said, "all those apparently different cultures are united by shared values and standards. Legal decisions on the progress of cases are decided by facts and law, not by interests and motives."
"So, too, the Justice Department's mission includes advising the other departments and agencies of government, including the president, on what choices they are free to make and what limits they face. Here, too, the governing standard is what the Constitution and the law permit and require."
Mukasey also assured the senators that political affiliation would not play a role in the practices of the department, maintaining a stance that it should be an independent body so "citizens and everybody here can have confidence in the administration of justice in this country.
Gonzales left his post Sept. 17 after months of mounting criticism from lawmakers on Capitol Hill. Members of Congress alleged that under Gonzales' leadership, the Justice Department fired federal prosecutors for political reasons, abused surveillance authorities and reached new lows in morale among career employees. Over the summer, Democrats also claimed Gonzales repeatedly lied to Congress while under oath.
Currently, the Justice Department inspector general has several ongoing investigations into actions and policies put in place by Gonzales and his senior staff.
The hearing has also touched on several hot-button legal issues.
The panel's chairman, Sen. Patrick Leahy, D-Vt., asked Mukasey about the use of torture tactics in his first round of questions. Leahy called a 2002 Justice Department memo that allowed torture in some circumstances "one of the greatest stains on the history of this country."
Then-Assistant Attorney General Jay Bybee signed the memo, which Leahy said "concluded that the president has authority as commander in chief to override domestic and international laws prohibiting torture, to immunize anybody who commits torture -- immunize them from prosecution."