Thursday, July 28, 2005 - Page updated at 12:00 AM

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Maverick who speaks his mind

Seattle Times staff reporter

In his 24 years on the federal bench in the Western District of Washington, Chief U.S. District Judge John Coughenour has earned a reputation as an outspoken maverick who, in recent years, has not shied away from criticizing the Bush administration and its policies designed to combat terrorism.

Over the years, Coughenour has publicly opposed the death penalty and criticized federal sentencing guidelines for eroding judicial discretion in the meting out of punishment.

And he also has criticized the Patriot Act in a law journal published in 2003.

Coughenour, who turned 64 yesterday, was born in Pittsburg, Kan. He was appointed to the federal bench in 1981 by President Reagan.

Coughenour's comments delivered during yesterday's sentencing of would-be bomber Ahmed Ressam addressed the legal system's ability to handle terrorism cases.

"We can deal with the threats to our national security without denying the accused fundamental constitutional protections," Coughenour said after sentencing Ressam to a 22-year prison term.

It wasn't the first time Coughenour has taken aim at the Bush administration for its policies seemingly aimed at elevating the interests of the state over the rights of the individual.

In a nearly-16,000 word paper published in the Winter 2003 issue of The Seattle University Law Review, Coughenour juxtaposed Russia's struggle to revive a jury system and implement democratic criminal-justice reforms with post-9/11 measures put in place by President Bush to deny detainees the right to counsel or the right to challenge their detention.

In the article, Coughenour criticized the "hastily enacted Patriot Act" for reducing standards for detaining someone, allowing "highly intrusive intelligence gathering techniques" and enabling the circumvention of "constitutional safeguards."

"... I sense that my Russian peers hope our history does not come to mirror their own," Coughenour wrote. "... They question whether an over-empowered executive branch may injure the state it purports to protect and whether our independent judiciary can withstand its authority."

Seattle Times researcher David Turim contributed to this report.

Sara Jean Green: 206-515-5654 or

Copyright © 2005 The Seattle Times Company


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