The Senate Judiciary Committee began confirmation hearings Wednesday for President Bush's nominee to be the next attorney general, retired federal judge Michael Mukasey. If confirmed, Mukasey would replace Alberto Gonzales, who resigned in August amid widespread criticism of mismanagement. Mukasey vowed to protect Americans' civil liberties and to maintain his independence from President Bush. VOA's Cindy Saine reports from Washington.

Some members of the Senate Judiciary Committee stressed that the U.S. Justice Department is now leaderless and demoralized, and in desperate need of someone who will restore integrity to the department's 100,000 employees across the United States. Some Republican and Democratic lawmakers had accused Alberto Gonzales of letting his longtime personal loyalty to President Bush override his duty to protect the U.S. constitution.

Democratic Senator Charles Schumer warmly welcomed and praised Mukasey, but posed this question:

"Will Judge Mukasey be independent enough and courageous enough to stand strong even against the man who nominated him if that is what the law requires?"

Schumer answered his own question with a "Yes", and the questions that came from other senators made clear that Mukasey's confirmation is all but certain. Republican Senator Arlen Specter framed the same basic question of judicial independence in a different way:

"Are you prepared to resign if the president were to violate your advice and in your view violate the constitution of the United States in an important matter?"

Mukasey replied that he would have only two choices in that situation, to try to talk the president out of it or to leave.

Pressed by Democratic Judiciary Committee Chairman Patrick Leahy, Mukasey made clear he does not believe the president has the authority to approve torture techniques against terrorism suspects. He said he is not aware of any "commander-in-chief override" of the Geneva convention or U.S. laws against torture.

The 66-year-old Mukasey sought to reassure lawmakers he would respect the rule of law, and strike a balance between fighting terrorism and protecting civil liberties.

"Protecting civil liberties, and people's confidence that those liberties are protected, is a part of protecting national security," he said. "Just as is the gathering of intelligence to defend us from those who believe it is their duty to make war on us. We have to succeed at both."

If confirmed by the Senate as expected, Mukasey will only have 14 months to take the Justice Department in a new direction before President Bush leaves office in early 2009.