Ithaca College Quarterly 2005/1

 

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Battle for Justice

Michael A. Battle '77 administers the country's chief federal law enforcement offices.

by Bonnie Auslander

Michael A. Battle '77 was walking down the hallway towards his new Department of Justice office when an aide interrupted him to ask about cruise ships:

What legal issues might arise if those displaced by Hurricane Katrina were housed on cruise ships off the Louisiana coast?

What would happen if a crime were then committed on board? Who would have jurisdiction? The state of Louisiana or the federal government, which prosecutes crimes in violation of maritime law?

Such questions of jurisdiction are nothing new to Battle, who as U.S. attorney of Western New York from 2002 until just a few months ago was often asked to determine -- when not overseeing the prosecution of tax evaders or the pursuit of drug smugglers -- when exactly a boat in Lake Erie on the border with Canada could be boarded by the Coast Guard and when it couldn't be.

What is new is the level of authority Battle brings to such questions. Since June, Battle has been director of the Executive Office for United States Attorneys (EOUSA), a position he was appointed to, as he was to his earlier position as U.S. attorney, by President George W. Bush. He reports to Attorney General Alberto Gonzales.

EOUSA's most important task is to coordinate the Department of Justice and the 93 United States attorneys, along with 500 assistant United States attorneys and 5,000 support staff. Each state has one to three U.S. attorneys, depending on caseload, plus one each for the District of Columbia and territories such as Puerto Rico and the U.S. Virgin Islands. Each U.S. attorney is the chief federal law enforcement officer of the United States within his or her particular jurisdiction; this is in contrast to the sometimes more-visible state attorney general, who prosecutes state crimes. While Battle is not exactly the U.S. attorneys' boss -- that would be Gonzales -- he is their principal liaison with the Department of Justice and a top manager.


Battle's office is at the Department of Justice, where he answers to Attorney General Alberto Gonzales.
Certainly Battle has needed his management skills these last few months in the wake of Hurricane Katrina. The staff of the office of the Eastern District of Louisiana, who were scattered, have leaned on him heavily. About half the staff have relocated to Baton Rouge, and Battle has urged the remainder -- for whom there is neither office space nor housing -- to find their way to any of the other 92 offices throughout the country, where they are allowed to work. (One former New Orleans staffer is now in Battle's old office in Buffalo.)

More broadly, he has helped set up a national taskforce to coordinate efforts to combat swindlers claiming to be collecting funds for Hurricane Katrina victims. He reports 19 indictments to date. And he's helped resolve a slew of questions: Where will the U.S. attorney's office for the Eastern District of Louisiana be relocated? (Temporary offices are now set up not only in Baton Rouge but also in Lafayette and Houma.) Is it still a Louisiana court for the Eastern District if it sits in a different district? (No, so Congress passed special legislation to allow this.) And then there are the nuts-and-bolts questions. When will the staff be paid? How? What about annual leave? (Amazingly -- the payroll center for the entire country is based in New Orleans -- no one missed a check.) Battle and his staff have fielded all of these questions and more.

At 50, Battle is authoritative, focused, unhurried, quick to give credit to others, and unfailingly polite. When asked his opinion on the many charges of racism and incompetence leveled in criticism of the government's slow response to the Katrina disaster, he responds easily, "The President said it, and I totally agree: Overall, many good people stepped in, and many good things happened on the ground that just didn't get the same attention as the bad ones. Many, many dedicated police officers -- people we call heroes -- did their jobs."

Katrina's aftermath is just part of what commands Battle's attention. Acting as liaison between the Department of Justice and the U.S. attorneys translates into a substantial coordination and implementation role. His office is responsible for budget, procurement, payroll, background checks, hiring -- all the nuts and bolts that go into running the federal prosecutors' offices around the country. And for all his willingness to discuss policy, Battle warms to the administrative side of his job, such as when he discusses the importance of meeting with staff "on their own turf," letting everyone know how important their contributions are, and getting to know exactly what each staff member does every day. "We're all trained as lawyers," he explains, "so the legal side is easy. But this administrative business is something else again."

 

Battle was raised by his mother (whom he still speaks with at least once a day) in New York City; his father left the family when Battle was two. At Ithaca College he studied sociology and considered a career in law enforcement before an adjunct professor in sociology encouraged him to think about a career in law. "After IC I believed I could do anything," he says. "A whole new world opened up to me."

Law school at the State University of New York at Buffalo was followed by a rising trajectory through the New York legal world: staff attorney at the Legal Aid Society, assistant U.S. attorney in Buffalo, federal public defender, and family court judge. He was named U.S. attorney for the western district of New York in January 2002. His list of achievements and awards goes on for pages; just a few are past president of the Minority Bar Association of Western New York, the Distinguished Alumni Award for Community Service from the University of Buffalo Law School, and the Martin Luther King Jr. Award from the Erie County chapter of the Southern Christian Leadership Conference.

Ryan Crawford '03, now in his third year at the University of Buffalo School of Law, interned with Battle for two summers at the U.S. attorney's office. He says he was inspired by Battle's "leadership and his commitment, by his passion for finding the good in people." IC legal studies professor Marlene Barken admires his "fairness, humanity, and tremendous legal mind." Even those on the opposite end of the political spectrum have good things to say about him. (Though he grew up in a Democratic family, Battle is a staunch Republican.) "He's extremely fair, he works hard, and he's a devoted father," says former U.S attorney Denise O'Donnell, a Democrat and champion of workers' rights who is currently candidate for New York attorney general.

In 2002 Battle succeeded O'Donnell as U.S. attorney for the western district of New York. O'Donnell had come to national prominence for the skill with which she pursued the killer of Barnett A. Slepian, the Buffalo-area obstetrician-gynecologist who was shot to death in his kitchen in 1998. The Bush administration replaced O'Donnell with its own man, Battle (it's common practice for incoming administrations to install their own selections for attorneys and other positions) Yet O'Donnell has nothing but praise for Battle, with whom she worked when they were both assistant U.S. attorneys.

Battle, too, would come to national attention while U.S. attorney. He became federal prosecutor of the Lackawanna Six, a group of Yemeni Americans who lived in a small city south of Buffalo and who were convicted on terrorism charges after admitting they had trained at an al Qaeda camp before the September 11, 2001, attacks. The six, all U.S. citizens, traveled in 2001 to Afghanistan and attended a camp. Although no evidence was found that they planned to commit a terrorist act, each was sentenced to between 8 and 10 years for "providing support or resources to a foreign terrorist organization." The case provoked outcry from civil liberties advocates; it was one of the first times the CIA had used its muscle in "the new strategy of prevention," as the New York Times put it.

The level of national interest in the case surprised Battle. But, he says, "now I realize now that this was one of the first cases where people linked to terrorism had left the country and returned again."

The Patriot Act made his prosecution of the Yemeni Six possible, Battle says. So it's no surprise that he's a strong supporter of the act and often chooses to address what he labels misconceptions about it when he comes to the Ithaca College campus, which he does almost yearly. When he speaks, says Barken, he stresses the "limits of prosecutorial powers" and the difficulties in derailing a terrorist act before suspects have actually done anything illegal.

Some IC students have told him they worry about abuses, but Battle counters with an analogy. "We choose to give police officers the tools to do their jobs -- guns, for example. How often do police officers abuse their authority and use their guns to rob a bank? It hardly ever happens," he tells them. Certainly, there are the exceptions, he acknowledges, such as Rodney King, the African American motorist whose 1991 beating by Los Angeles police was videotaped, sparking widespread outrage, and Abner Louima, the Haitian immigrant who was brutally beaten and sodomozed by New York City police in 1997. But, Battle says, these are anomalies.

"Before the Patriot Act, we knew the Lackawanna Six had been up to something, but we couldn't prosecute them," he says. "The act made it possible for us to look where we hadn't before" -- in this case, a letter -- "so we could go back to our suspect and say, 'Look, we know you've been lying to us.' As for charges that the act can provides cover for abuse of those in the Muslim community, Battle responds by describing the lengths he as U.S. attorney for the western district of New York went to in meeting Muslim community leaders.

So intent is Battle on getting the students to understand his points that at one point, after leaving campus, he even made a follow-up phone call to Barken to further address their concerns about the act.

While Battle is unquestionably personable, he also conveys a "no-BS" quality, as Barken puts it, that presumably makes him a formidable foe in the courtroom. With his relaxed, conversational style, it's easy to imagine him lulling opponents in court into a false sense of security -- and then letting them hang by their own rope.


Battle in 2004, when he was U.S. attorney for the Western District of New York, listened as President George W. Bush discusses the Patriot Act in front of a Buffalo audience
Photo:Harry Scull Jr./The Buffalo News, 2004
Being part of the Bush administration is a source of deep pride for Battle. He speaks warmly of the president and recalls him asking, when they'd met again after several years, "Hey, Mike, how's your family?" He praises his current boss, attorney general Gonzales, as "a fantastic public servant -- soft-spoken and a great listener," and his previous boss, former attorney general John Ashcroft, as "a phenomenal American."

People who know Battle describe him as a family man. Since his appointment to EOUSA, he has spent weekdays in Washington, traveling home to Buffalo by plane every other weekend or hosting his wife and son in his Crystal City, Virginia, apartment. (At 15, Michael II, has only two years left in high school, so he is staying in Buffalo with Battle's wife, Sheila Jones Battle '79, a physical therapist with a private home health care company.) Battle speaks with pride about his older children as well: Elisse, 24, works with autistic children ("she has incredible patience"); Nicole, 22, finished her undergraduate degree at American University and plans to attend law school ("very astute politically").

Although he's only a few months into his new position, Battle is open about where he'd like go next: the federal bench. Does his elevated position in the Justice Department presage an appointment there? Certainly he is now highly placed enough to merit a paragraph in a recent Washington Post profile of Gonzales's key advisers. (In it Battle is described as a key player for Gonzales's "push for prosecutions of gang violence, obscenity, and other crimes.") Previous directors have gone in different directions. Battle's predecessor returned to her job as a U. S. attorney; others have gone or returned to U.S. attorneys' offices, worked for corporations, or gone into private practice.

It's reasonable to expect that Battle will continue to return to IC regardless of what the future brings -- for at least a few more years. His next job might not allow as much flexibility. Battle says, laughing, about his openness in wanting a federal judgeship: "I say that because I think I have only one or two more jobs left in me. I'm not one of those types to hang on forever. I'd like to retire at 65!"

Top three hotos: Maya Alleruzzo

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