Wednesday’s appointment by U.S. President George W. Bush of his longtime friend, White House Counsel Alberto Gonzales, as the next attorney general puts Democrats and civil-rights activists in something of a quandary.
Gonzales, who, if confirmed, will replace John Ashcroft, widely considered to have been one of the most right-wing members of Bush’s cabinet, is believed to be considerably less ideological, even if he has been associated with some of the more controversial decisions made by the administration, particularly regarding its "war on terrorism."
Gonzales will also be the highest-ranking Latino to have served in the U.S. government, and Democrats, who were shocked by exit polls last week that showed unprecedented gains by Republicans among Latino voters in the presidential election, will be very hesitant to do anything that could alienate a constituency considered part of the party’s base since before the Second World War.
Bush won 44 percent of the Hispanic vote in last Tuesday’s election, 10 percentage points more than in 2000 and seven points more than Ronald Reagan received in 1984, the previous Republican high.
Early reaction appeared to confirm Democrats’ ambivalence over the nomination, with a senior member of the Senate Judiciary Committee, which will oversee Gonzales’ confirmation hearings, New York Sen. Charles Schumer, telling reporters the appointment is "encouraging [because Bush] has chosen someone less polarizing than John Ashcroft."
But others who have been critical of Ashcroft’s performance urged the Senate to ask Gonzales tough questions, particularly regarding a series of memos that he signed or approved since 2002 that justified denying detainees captured in Afghanistan and in the "war on terrorism" protections guaranteed to prisoners of war (POWs) under the Geneva Conventions.
In an implicit rebuke of Gonzales’ written views that some provisions of the conventions were "obsolete" and "quaint," a federal judge earlier this week ruled the detainees had to be treated as POWs under the Geneva Conventions unless an independent tribunal concluded otherwise.
Gonzales has also been strongly criticized for clearing a 2002 Justice Department memorandum that argued U.S. and international laws prohibiting torture do "not apply to the president’s detention and interrogation of enemy combatants," and that the pain caused by interrogation must include "injury such as death, organ failure, or serious impairment of body functions in order to constitute torture."
The memo was widely condemned by leading U.S. jurists, including seven former presidents of the largest U.S. lawyers’ group, the American Bar Association (ABA), as well as by the organization itself.
"Particular attention should be devoted to exploring Mr. Gonzales’ proposed policies on the constitutionality of the PATRIOT Act, the Guantanamo Bay detentions, the designation of U.S. citizens as enemy combatants, and reproductive rights," said the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) which declined, as it has done historically, to take a formal position on whether he should be confirmed.
Gonzales was born in San Antonio and grew up in Houston, Texas, where he was the second of eight children in a house that lacked both hot water and a telephone.
After high school, he enrolled in the Air Force Academy, but transferred after his second year to Rice University in Houston. He graduated from Harvard Law School in 1982 and returned to Houston, where he became an associate at Vinson & Elkins, Texas’ most powerful law firm.
After Bush was elected Texas governor in 1994, he appointed Gonzales as his general counsel, then secretary of state, and finally, in 1999, to the Texas Supreme Court.
In his role as legal counsel, Gonzales was in charge of preparing memos for Bush on whether to grant clemency in death-penalty cases. According to an investigative report by the Atlantic Monthly, "Gonzales repeatedly failed to apprise the governor of crucial issues in the cases at hand: ineffective counsel, conflict of interest, mitigating evidence, even actual evidence of innocence."
During Bush’s tenure, Texas executed more prisoners than any other state, by far.
As a judge, Gonzales established himself as a moderate conservative, voting in one case that outraged the Christian Right to allow minors to have abortions under some circumstances without notifying their parents.
But he was heavily criticized for accepting large contributions from Halliburton, which was then headed by Vice President Dick Cheney, and then ruling in favor of the company instead of recusing himself from any cases in which the giant construction firm was involved.
When Bush won the presidency in 2000, he brought Gonzales to serve as his counsel, where his role has been to dispense legal advice to Bush and other White House aides.
In this position, he has been criticized for defending the White House’s efforts to withhold documents demanded by Congress, screening judicial appointments for right-wing credentials, and backing some of the more far-reaching provisions in the USA PATRIOT Act, a law passed after the terrorist attacks of Sept. 11, 2001 that permits security agencies to restrict civil liberties.
Despite his reputation as a relative moderate, Gonzales’ own legal team has been dominated by members of the arch-conservative Federalist Society a group dedicated to opposing the "liberal ideology" its says dominates the U.S. legal profession of which Ashcroft has been one of the leading figures.
Virtually all of the political appointees in the White House, the Justice Department, the Pentagon and Cheney’s office who were responsible for the most controversial memos on torture, presidential power, and the Geneva Conventions are members of the society, which is particularly notable for its strong aversion to international law and its application within the United States.
In Gonzales’ case, this stance was presaged back in 1997, when he wrote a memo to Bush justifying his non-compliance with the Vienna Convention, which is supposed to ensure that foreign consulates are informed about arrests of their nationals and given an opportunity to provide legal representation.
Gonzales sent a letter to the State Department in which he argued the treaty did not apply to Texas because it was not a signatory. Two days later, the state executed a Mexican citizen over Mexico’s protests that the condemned man’s rights under the Vienna Convention were violated because its consulate was never given an opportunity to provide counsel.
Mexico’s position has since been upheld by the World Court.
But unlike many extreme-right Federalist Society members, such as Supreme Court Justice Clarence Thomas, Gonzales is seen as more flexible and sensitive to questions of poverty, race, and minority status.
In a 2001 interview with the Los Angeles Times, he recognized that his Latino ethnicity contributed to his meteoric rise to prominence, noting, "it is important to have at the highest levels of government people who look like the citizens who are being served by that government…. People have confidence when they see people of their own color making decisions, particularly from the [judicial] bench."
In addition, his less than abolitionist position on abortion has been disquieting to the Christian Right, which, for the most part, however, hailed his nomination Wednesday.
"We look forward to Alberto Gonzales when he is confirmed as attorney general continuing the tough policies instituted by Attorney General Ashcroft against terrorists, which have protected America from another horrendous attack," said Roberta Combs, president of the Christian Coalition of America.
Much the same point was made by the National Council of La Raza (NCLR), the largest Mexican-American organization, which historically has been more closely identified with the Democratic Party’s progressive base.
"We acknowledge that this is the first step of a long confirmation process that requires that his record be fully examined," said NCLR President Janet Murguia. "That being said, Gonzales is a thoughtful, reasonable public servant, a man of his word, and we have every expectation that his nomination will be very well received in the Latino community."
(Inter Press Service)