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.”
In a January 2002 legal opinion, the White House counsel’s office had suggested that Mr. Bush, as commander in chief, was not restricted by prohibitions on torture of prisoners as defined by U.S. law and under international treaties such as the Geneva Conventions owing to the president’s “complete authority over the conduct of war.”
“The war against terrorism is a new kind of war, a new paradigm that renders obsolete Geneva’s strict limitations on questioning of enemy prisoners and renders quaint some of its provisions,” the memo said.
That paper was targeted yesterday by the Center for American Progress, a liberal Washington think tank.
“By condoning the use of torture, seeking to evade U.S. obligations under the Geneva Conventions, and disregarding the constitutional rights of detainees, he has contributed to a climate that has placed U.S. soldiers at greater risk and brought the American system of justice into disrepute,” the group said.
The center, created by Clinton administration official John Podesta, who now serves as president and chief executive officer, said the Senate should “insist on complete access to the memoranda he has written on these subjects and a full accounting of his role in these critical decisions.”
But Sen. John Cornyn, Texas Republican and a member of the Senate Judiciary Committee, said Mr. Gonzales had faced “the many challenges of the war against terror with tireless dedication and patriotism.”
“I strongly believe that Judge Gonzales would be a worthy candidate to lead the Justice Department into the future as our government faces the critical tasks of restructuring our law-enforcement resources to keep America safe. I am proud to count Judge Gonzales as a friend, and I believe he would be an excellent nominee to be America’s next attorney general,” he said.
Mr. Gonzales, who is married and has three sons, was born in San Antonio.
He grew up in a two-bedroom house with seven siblings and his parents, migrant workers who never finished elementary school.
“They worked hard to educate their children and to instill the values of reverence and integrity and personal responsibility,” Mr. Bush said.
The nominee referred to his heritage just once in his comments yesterday.
“When I talk to people around the country I sometimes tell them that within the Hispanic community there is a shared hope for an opportunity to succeed. ‘Just give me a chance to prove myself’ — that is a common prayer for those in my community,” he said.
“Mr. President, thank you for that chance. With the consent of the Senate, God’s help and the support of my family, I will do my best to fulfill the confidence and trust reflected in this nomination.”
One of the nation’s leading Hispanic lobby groups voiced support for the Gonzales nomination last night.
“We are pleased that one of the first acts since President Bush’s re-election both rectifies and marks an historic milestone for the Latino community,” said the National Council of La Raza.
Charles Hurt contributed to this report.