WASHINGTON — Speeding through arguments in front of the Supreme Court, Attorney General Michael Mukasey didn't let time hang heavy on his hands Tuesday.
Only time will tell, however, if it will ultimately be on Mukasey's side in the case of the Millennium Bomber.
The terse attorney general brought his first and likely his only case to the nation's high court, asking justices to reinstate a dropped explosives charge against convicted terrorist Ahmed Ressam. At issue was whether the would-be bomber should be sentenced to 10 years in prison for carrying explosives in his car as part of his penalty for lying to U.S. border agents in December 1999.
Several skeptical justices indicated that linking two potentially unrelated offenses amounted to a legal stretch.
"Could Congress pass a law that said if you wear a wristwatch during the commission of any crime, you get another 10 years?" Justice Antonin Scalia asked.
Mukasey scoffed at Scalia's extreme example.
"A statute like that would be entirely unreasonable," the attorney general said.
Pressing the point, Scalia said, "Surely it depends on what the felony is. If the felony is the filing of a dishonest tax return and you have a can of gasoline with you when you mail the letter, it seems to me quite as absurd as saying wearing a wristwatch in the course of a felony. That's what troubles me about this."
Mukasey's appearance was as much ceremony as a necessary legal process: It's a long-standing tradition for attorneys general to argue at least one case before the Supreme Court.
The last to do so was Janet Reno, in 1996. President Bush's first two attorneys general, John Ashcroft and Alberto Gonzales, skipped the honor.
Ressam, who was nabbed at the U.S.-Canadian border with a trunk loaded with explosives, initially was convicted of nine counts of plotting to bomb Los Angeles International Airport around Jan. 1, 2000. But the 9th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals in San Francisco tossed out one of the charges: carrying explosives during the commission of another serious crime.
The appeals court said the law required prosecutors to show the explosives were carried "in relation to" the felony, or, in Ressam's case, lying on a U.S. Customs form. Mukasey asked the justices to reverse the appeals court and give prosecutors the power to penalize terrorists as much as possible.