News Column

The Jury's Still Out

May 2005, HISPANIC BUSINESS Magazine

Jennifer Davis


The appointment of Alberto Gonzales to the nation's top law enforcement post merits two mentions in the history books: He is the first Hispanic ever to hold the influential position, and he received the second-most "no" votes in the Senate ever against an attorney general nominee. Divergent views on Mr. Gonzales paint a portrait of either a humble man who represents the pinnacle of Hispanic achievement – or a presidential "yes" man who is the Republican dream.

President George W. Bush likes to say that Mr. Gonzales is proof the American dream is alive and well. Mr. Gonzales, the son of migrant farm workers, has persevered from an impoverished childhood to become a Harvard Law School graduate and a presidential advisor. Mr. Gonzales's appointment has drawn broad support from the League of United Latin American Citizens (LULAC), the Latino Coalition, the National Hispanic Bar Association, and the National Council of La Raza (NCLR).

"Whenever you are the first at anything, you are opening doors, and that's always a good thing," says Gabriela Lemus, director of policy and legislation at LULAC. "I think LULAC's position overall is we know we're not always going to be on the same side, but we always want to be able to have a dialogue so maybe we can get closer to the middle."

"I think [Mr. Gonzales's appointment is] very meaningful, and I think it's something we should take pride in as Latinos," says NCLR President Janet Murguia. "He's in a position no Hispanic has ever been in, and I think we can benefit as Latinos by that."

Senator Mel Martínez, a Republican from Florida, made one of his first speeches on the Senate floor in defense of Mr. Gonzales. "Judge Gonzales will be the first Hispanic American to serve in one of the top four Cabinet positions when he becomes our nation's attorney general," he said. "This is a breakthrough of incredible magnitude for Hispanic Americans that should not be diluted by partisan politics."

So far in office, Mr. Gonzales has moved to lay out his priorities. In initial remarks to Justice Department staff, he noted they have "a special obligation to protect America against future acts of terrorism." Mr. Gonzales has targeted issues including expediting the deportation of illegal immigrants, ending an impasse over judicial nominees, and extending government powers under the Patriot Act.

Critics question Mr. Gonzales's allegiance to the president rather than the country.
"What can we expect of him? Absolute dogged loyalty," says Rodolfo De La Garza, a political science professor at Columbia University. "The pressure comes in to [Mr.] Bush from the right wing and the money industries. [Mr.] Bush lets people know what he wants. The attorney general has demonstrated he will roll over and give it to him."

The Congressional Hispanic Caucus did not oppose Mr. Gonzales but did not endorse him either. Executive Director Maria Meier says the organization of 21 Democratic Congress members decided to not issue a position after they were told Mr. Gonzales was too busy to meet with them until after his confirmation. "This is the first time for someone to come to us and say, 'No, I no longer want your endorsement.' So there's some disappointment there," she says.
Some of the nation's leading civil rights groups, including the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP), the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU), the Center for Constitutional Rights, and Amnesty International raised "serious concerns" over Mr. Gonzales, focusing particularly on a 2002 memo that came to light during the investigation of prisoner abuse allegations at Abu Ghraib. Mr. Gonzales wrote that the Geneva Conventions didn't apply to certain prisoners in the Iraq and Afghanistan wars because "the war against terrorism is a new kind of war" and "this new paradigm renders obsolete Geneva's strict limitations on questioning of enemy prisoners and renders quaint some of its provisions."

Seeking to clarify the issue, Mr. Gonzales told a Senate judiciary panel that "contrary to reports, I consider the Geneva Conventions neither obsolete nor quaint."

In 1999, Mr. Bush named Mr. Gonzales to the Texas Supreme Court. When Mr. Bush won the presidential election in 2000 and moved to Washington, he took Mr. Gonzales with him as White House counsel. In that role, critics charge, Mr. Gonzales worked to protect the secrecy of his client. He vigorously rejected requests from the independent commission investigating the September 11 terrorist attacks for access to presidential documents. He stopped the commission from reviewing daily presidential intelligence briefings, permitting selected members to view only portions of them. He recommended halting congressional oversight of the data leading to presidential pardons. He requested successive extensions of deadlines for turning over the papers of past presidents. He argued that records of Vice-President Richard Cheney's energy policy task force should be spared congressional or public scrutiny.

Mr. Martínez says it's unfair to criticize Mr. Gonzales when he was fulfilling his role as a lawyer. "When he was the president's lawyer, he was the president's lawyer," Mr. Martínez says. "People have to understand a lawyer has a role when they're a person's lawyer. That's not to say that the role of attorney general is to be the president's lawyer. It's to be America's lawyer. It's a different role."

But some caution not to expect the new attorney general to do anything that his president doesn't want. "We can't look to him to take a position on an issue based on the understanding of the law," says Mr. De La Garza. "How can we have any confidence that he will do that? The answer is, we can't."

Ultimately, history will judge whether Mr. Gonzales will be known as an infamous attorney general or an influential one, whether he will strike out on his own and make decisions independent of the president or whether he will back the party line.

Mr. Martínez just wants him to have a fair opportunity. "The American way is fairness," he says. "Give him a chance. Don't bring baggage and presumptions that he can't possibly be fair or independent. I think he will be a great attorney general."


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