SENATORS CONSIDERING President Bush's nomination of his chief counsel, Alberto Gonzales, as the next attorney general should question him closely to make sure they are not replacing one divisive and authoritarian lawyer with another.
John Ashcroft, in his letter of resignation, declared himself greatly satisfied with his four-year record. "The rule of law has been strengthened and upheld in the courts," he said.
In fact, Ashcroft was chastened several times for trampling with abandon on civil liberties. In June the Supreme Court ruled that the administration could not deny people it designated enemy combatants the right to challenge their detention. The court also questioned Ashcroft's much publicized prosecution of a US citizen, Jose Padilla. A month earlier another court threw out Ashcroft's directive trying to make Oregon's physician-assisted suicide law illegal, saying it was "unlawful and unenforceable."
The Justice Department's own inspector general last year blasted the prolonged detention of illegal immigrants after the Sept. 11 attacks. Even Bush's spokesman said earlier this year that the president was "disappointed" that Ashcroft declassified documents to discredit the 9/11 Commission.
Ashcroft's legacy is that the country badly needs an attorney general who will act not only as an effective fighter against crime and terrorism but also as the chief protector of constitutional rights, not as the chief apologist for the ultimate power of the state.
Bush yesterday praised Gonzales's "sharp intellect and sound judgment." And Gonzales said: "Just give me a chance to prove myself."
Gonzales should certainly have that chance, starting in a Senate hearing room.
What stands out from Gonzales's public resume is his long and loyal service to George Bush. Such a close relationship can be an asset to the country as well as the president -- if it is accompanied by the independence to investigate the administration's own agencies, to appoint truly independent and aggressive special prosecutors when needed, and to be guided by the Constitution and the law, not politics.
On this count, serious questions are raised by Gonzales's support of the administration's now repudiated detention policy and his 2002 memo suggesting some terror suspects are not protected from torture by law or the Geneva Conventions. In both cases, Gonzales gave Bush the answer he wanted rather than sound legal judgment.
Unlike other Cabinet members, the attorney general has as his primary responsibility the protection of the people, not the president. Only if Gonzales can demonstrate that he believes this to his core and will act on it should he be confirmed.