Wednesday, January 19, 2011

Guilt by Association or Calculated Political Move?

Cross-posted from

Former prosecutor and current New Jersey governor Chris Christie is no stranger to tampering with the independence of the judicial system to fulfil his political agenda. His refusal to re-nominate State Supreme Court Judge John Wallace is the most notable example.

Now, there could be something fishy about his announcement of his intention to appoint 9/11 defense counsel Sohail Mohammed as a Superior Court judge in Passaic County.

As an attorney, Mohammed has defended Muslims who were detained in the aftermath of the 9/11 attacks. If that’s where the story ends, then it would be a no-brainer. All Americans, no matter how heinous the crime of which they are accused, have a constitutional right to a defense lawyer. And in the aftermath of the tragic events almost a decade ago, Mohammed was actively promoting dialog between the Muslim community and Jewish organizations.

But it’s more complicated than that.

One of Mohammed’s more notorious clients was Mohammed Qatanani, who was the imam of the Islamic Center of Passaic County during the reign of Chris Christie as U.S. Attorney. In 2008, the Department of Homeland Security initiated deportation proceedings against the imam, alleging that Qatanani was connected with Hamas. Sohail Mohammed was his defense attorney.

Here’s where it gets really complicated.

Professional terrorism watcher and author Steve Emerson has written extensively in support of deporting the imam. He points out Qatanani’s connections not only with Hamas but also with other terrorist organizations in the Middle East. Is Emerson one of those “sky-is-falling” terrorist-under-every-bed-sheet alarmists, or does he have some credibility? There are endorsements (on Emerson’s web site) from reliable people like Richard Clarke and A.M. Rosenthal, so that needs to be factored into the equation. (Not surprisingly, Emerson is also praised by Bill O’Reilly and Senator Jon Kyl - not exactly bellwethers of fair play.)

Further complicating the story...

The night before the immigration judge was to announce his decision regarding Sohail Mohammed’s client, U.S. Attorney Chris Christie praised the defendant, announcing at a Ramadan break-fast dinner, “My view is he’s always had a very good relationship with us, and he’s a man of great goodwill.”

But Christie was not alone. Then-governor Corzine and Democratic congressman Bill Pascrell joined Christie in intervening on behalf of Qatanani.

Some aspects of this story are not unexpected.

Not surprisingly, the conservative bloggers and right-wing Jewish writers are apoplectic about Christie’s nomination of Sohail Mohammed to the Superior Court. Yet both of these groups decry Mohammed’s association with Qatanani, and present very little credible evidence that Mohammed himself is associated with terrorist organizations. The anti-Mohammed writers accuse Governor Christie of pandering to the growing Islamic community in Passaic County.

So how will this play out?

No one has accused New Jersey politics of being dull. So the confirmation hearings for Sohail Mohammed should be interesting. Will the Islamophobes dominate? Will Mohammed’s outreach to the Jewish community be a factor in the hearings? Will Christie’s support of a Muslim judicial candidate doom his presidential ambitions? Will Mohammed’s appointment be derailed because he aided Americans in exercising their constitutional rights? Is Christie pandering to the Muslim community, or is the governor nominating a well-qualified attorney who deserves this appointment? Will the Tea Party demand to see Chris Christie’s birth certificate?

Fasten your seatbelts, this should be an interesting ride.

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