President Bush yesterday nominated White House Counsel Alberto Gonzales, a son of migrant workers, to succeed Attorney General John Ashcroft as head of the Justice Department and become the administration’s most prominent Hispanic member.
“His sharp intellect and sound judgment have helped shape our policies in the war on terror — policies designed to protect the security of all Americans, while protecting the rights of all Americans,” Mr. Bush said in a brief announcement.
“As the top legal official on the White House staff, he has led a superb team of lawyers and has upheld the highest standards of government ethics,” he said. “My confidence in Al was high to begin with; it has only grown with time.”
“This is the fifth time I have asked Judge Gonzales to serve his fellow citizens, and I am very grateful he keeps saying ‘yes,’” Mr. Bush joked of his longtime friend from Texas, whom he calls “The Judge.”
If confirmed, as expected, by the Republican-controlled Senate, Mr. Gonzales, 49, would become the first Hispanic to hold the country’s top law-enforcement position. The White House announced Mr. Ashcroft’s resignation on Tuesday.
Mr. Gonzales said his nomination inspired “great humility and gratitude.”
“As a former judge, I know well that some government positions require a special level of trust and integrity. The American people expect and deserve a Department of Justice guided by the rule of law, and there should be no question regarding the department’s commitment to justice for every American. On this principle, there can be no compromise,” said Mr. Gonzales, a graduate of Harvard Law School.
Although his confirmation seems assured, Mr. Gonzales is likely to face stiff questioning during hearings over his role in a White House opinion on legal and treaty requirements relating to the treatment of prisoners in Afghanistan and Iraq.
Critics say the memo led to the abuse of war prisoners at the Abu Ghraib facility near Baghdad — an accusation denied by the Bush administration.
The nomination drew early praise from a prominent Democrat on the Senate Judiciary Committee, which will hold the hearings on Mr. Gonzales, and at least one civil-liberties group that had opposed Mr. Ashcroft at every turn.
“It’s encouraging that the president has chosen someone less polarizing,” said Sen. Charles E. Schumer of New York. “We will have to review his record very carefully, but I can tell you already he’s a better candidate than John Ashcroft.”
Two other Democratic senators — Byron L. Dorgan of North Dakota and Patrick J. Leahy of Vermont, the party’s ranking member on the Judiciary Committee — also said the nomination was very likely to pass.
Mr. Leahy, who has been a thorn in Mr. Bush’s side on judgeships, said he did not expect a fight over the nomination of Mr. Gonzales. And Mr. Dorgan noted that the Senate generally lets the president choose his own Cabinet.
The American Civil Liberties Union, which opposed Mr. Ashcroft’s nomination and consistently challenged him while he was in office, said yesterday that it was taking “no official position” on the Gonzales nomination.
But the liberal organization called for a full and thorough Senate confirmation process that scrutinizes his positions on key civil liberties and human rights issues, adding that “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 United States citizens as enemy combatants and reproductive rights.”