Judgeship Possible for a Top Justice Official

Times Staff Writer

Michael Chertoff, the Justice Department's top crime-fighter, is being considered for a federal judgeship, portending a new leader in the Bush administration's twin wars on terrorism and corporate crime, officials said Friday.

Chertoff, the assistant U.S. attorney general in charge of the department's criminal division, is likely to be nominated to the federal appeals court covering New Jersey and Pennsylvania, according to David Wald, an aide to Sen. Jon Corzine (D-N.J.).

Wald said the White House told Corzine on Wednesday that President Bush intended to name Chertoff to the bench. A White House spokeswoman declined comment.

Chertoff, a former Republican counsel to the Senate Whitewater committee and U.S. attorney in New Jersey, also declined to comment, through a spokesman. A hard-nosed former mob prosecutor, he has led the department's aggressive pursuit of white-collar defendants, stocking the department's Enron Corp. task force with like-minded former mob busters.

He has also spearheaded and then reorganized the division's counter-terrorism efforts, with the support of Atty. Gen. John Ashcroft centralizing the power over the government's terrorism probes in Washington after Sept. 11. And he has been one of the department's chief defenders in the face of criticism by civil liberties groups about the Bush administration's embrace of military tribunals to try suspected terrorists, among other issues.

While a Justice official said it was too early to speculate on Chertoff's successor, one person who is likely to gain attention is Leslie Caldwell, chief of the Enron unit. Caldwell was a noted prosecutor of New York drug kingpins for more than a decade in the U.S. attorney's office in Brooklyn.

She subsequently worked for current FBI Director Robert S. Mueller III, who recruited her to head the securities and fraud division when he was the U.S. attorney in San Francisco, before Chertoff asked her to take the lead on the Enron cases. A Senate Judiciary Committee source said Caldwell is considered "well-qualified." Caldwell could not be reached for comment.

Some defendants may be happy to see Chertoff go. He angered corporate targets, which occasionally perceived his team as overreaching and punitive.

Partners at Arthur Andersen have asserted that the government's decision to charge the accounting firm as a whole -- rather than individual partners -- for destroying documents in connection with its audits of Enron led to the loss of thousands of jobs when clients fled after the indictment. A federal jury in Houston convicted the firm on one count of obstruction of justice in June; Andersen is appealing.

But the case also provided some quick momentum to the government's corporate-crime crackdown. "It was a surgical strike to get a quick victory, an exquisite piece of minor surgery, well-timed," said Robert Weis- berg, a criminal-law expert at Stanford Law School.

Chertoff "is the kind of lawyer who any administration would call on if it wanted to do something very tough, and make sure it was very well-done, and not done in a carelessly symbolic way." He doubted Chertoff would encounter much resistance in being confirmed by the Senate.

"Mike is an intellectually curious guy. He has never shied away from finding new ways to challenge himself," said Roger Goldman, a Washington lawyer who has known Chertoff since both were young associates at the Latham & Watkins law firm in the early 1980s.

Of the possibility of Chertoff becoming a judge, Goldman added, "Those opportunities don't come into anyone's life very often. Mike would have to be very tempted by it."

Chertoff would not be the first high-ranking official to leave the Bush Justice Department.

Jay S. Bybee, the assistant attorney general in the Office of Legal Counsel, has been nominated to the U.S. 9th Circuit Court of Appeals. And Jay B. Stephens, former associate attorney general, recently departed to become senior vice president and general counsel of Raytheon Corp., a Lexington, Mass., defense contractor.

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