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Chertoff, Michael


In February of 2005, Michael Chertoff took over the U.S. Department of Homeland Security. A federal appellate judge and former prosecutor, Chertoff was well known for his finelytuned intellect and hard-driving style. Further, he was seen as able to gain support from Republicans and Democrats alike.

Chertoff was born on November 28, 1953 in Elizabeth, New Jersey, the only child of Rabbi Gershon and Livia Chertoff. His father served a conservative synagogue and was active in the community, and his mother was a Polish-born actress who also ran an art gallery in town. Chertoff began his education at Elizabeth's Jewish Education Center before attending the Pingry School (then in Hillside, where the family had moved). There, he was managing editor of the school newspaper.

In 1971, Chertoff headed off to Harvard University to major in history. Always quick at his studies, he spent a year abroad at the London School of Economics and graduated magna cum laude from Harvard in 1975. During his last year in undergraduate school, Chertoff began to cast about for his next move. Almost accidentally, that move turned out to be law school.

Chertoff started at Harvard Law School in 1975 and immediately embraced his coursework with unbridled enthusiasm. Clearly having found his niche, Chertoff went on to become editor of the Harvard Law Review and graduate magna cum laude in 1978. After receiving his J.D., Chertoff was a law clerk for Judge Murray Gurfein of the Second U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals (1978-1979) and then for U.S. Supreme Court Justice William J. Brennan, Jr. (1979-1980). In 1980, he became an associate attorney with the firm of Latham & Watkins. Three years later, Chertoff was poised to make his mark as a federal prosecutor.

In 1983, Chertoff went to work as an assistant in the U.S. Attorney's office for the Southern District of New York. His boss was the headline-grabbing future mayor of New York City, Rudy Giuliani. By 1986, Chertoff was attracting attention on his own with convictions in several high-profile cases involving notorious mobsters, members of the so-called Mafia Commission. His success led him to a position in Newark, New Jersey as First Assistant U.S. Attorney (1987-1990) and then U.S. Attorney for New Jersey (1990-1994). Even in the top job, Chertoff continued to try cases himself, displaying formidable skills in advocacy and a driven style that some found overwhelming and/or unappealing. Supporters, however, maintained that his merciless tendencies were reserved for the courtroom and that his unapproachable aura was merely single-mindedness.

Michael Chertoff

1975      Graduated Harvard Law School

1979–80      Served as U.S Supreme Court clerk

1990–94      U.S. Attorney for New Jersey

2001      Headed criminal division of Department of Justice

2005      Became Secretary of Department of Homeland Security

Chertoff returned to private practice as a partner with Latham & Watkins in 1994, but did not stay out of the public eye long, as he was brought in as special counsel for the U.S. Senate Whitewater Committee shortly afterward. In March of 2001, he was appointed to head up the criminal division at the U.S. Department of Justice. Just six months later, the September 11 terrorist attacks on the United States placed him in the limelight once again as he oversaw the Bush administration's legal response to the attacks. Some of Chertoff's policies, such as favoring passage of the USA Patriot Act, were controversial, but the president welcomed them. Two years later, Chertoff was rewarded with a lifetime appointment as a judge on the Third U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals. But the spotlight would beckon yet again.

In January of 2005, Chertoff was nominated by President Bush to take over the U.S. Department of Homeland Security. Critics, such as Greg Nojeim, chief legislative counsel of the American Civil Liberties Union, worried about Chertoff's actions at the Justice Department. Nojeim told Frank James of the Chicago Tribune, for example, "Michael Chertoff's record suggests that he sees the Bill of Rights as an obstacle to national security rather than a guidebook for how to do it right." Nonetheless, the unabashedly conservative former prosecutor was widely seen as being above partisan politics and was endorsed by Democrats (including both of New Jersey's senators) and Republicans alike. Chertoff was sworn in as Secretary of the Department of Homeland Security on February 15, 2005.

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