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Earlier this month, when White House Counsel Alberto Gonzales needed to get a deputy counsel on the job quickly to replace Timothy Flanigan, he set his sights on Federal Aviation Administration Chief Counsel David Leitch. Leitch, however, had been working to set up the new Department of Homeland Security and was on track to become the department’s first general counsel. And in the interagency battle over Leitch, homeland security chief Tom Ridge enjoyed the backing of White House Personnel Director Clay Johnson III. But Gonzales carried the day, and Leitch ended up making the move to the deputy’s office. Gonzales, the Washington outsider and presidential friend whom President George W. Bush picked as White House counsel, clearly commands a good deal of clout in the administration. For a man who has such sway and who is widely rumored to be the next Supreme Court nominee, Gonzales, 47, tries to stay out of the public eye. But he and his shop were at the center of many of the administration’s key decisions — both great and small — in 2002. Gonzales and the other lawyers in the counsel’s office shaped policy on issues ranging from the treatment of captured Taliban leaders to the protection of White House documents from congressional inquiries. When President Bush was sedated for two hours during a routine colonoscopy in June, it was Gonzales who made sure that the president signed a letter temporarily transferring his power to Vice President Dick Cheney, and it was Gonzales who specified the precise moment when the president resumed power. As is the case in most administrations, the White House counsel’s shop took the lead in vetting and signing off on nominees to the federal courts. Along with the White House Legislative Affairs Office and various offices at the Justice Department, it also played a role in shepherding the nominees through what was often a rough confirmation process in a Democratic Senate. Although there were slips along the way — the administration was blindsided early in the year by liberal opposition to the nomination of Charles Pickering Sr. to the U.S. Court of Appeals for the 5th Circuit — the confirmation machinery was running more smoothly by year’s end. In the fall, Gonzales faced a dicey situation after opponents of 5th Circuit nominee Priscilla Owen pointed out that Gonzales had accused Owen of “judicial activism” for her opinion in an abortion-related case they ruled on as members of the Texas Supreme Court in 2000. Gonzales, who declined comment for this article, told Texas Lawyer in an interview at the time that “the fact that I disagreed with Justice Owen in a case doesn’t mean that I somehow think she’s unfit to serve.” While Gonzales often found himself dealing with the politics of judicial nominations, some of his most important work fell squarely in the legal arena. On Dec. 9, one of the key legal positions taken by the administration at Gonzales’ urging was vindicated by a U.S. district judge, who rejected an effort by the General Accounting Office to get access to records related to Cheney’s energy task force. Many Democrats bristled at the president’s aggressive assertion of his prerogatives and privileges throughout 2002. Gonzales was a chief crafter of that policy, beating the drum for an expansive view of presidential power. Gonzales has long and strong ties to the president. He served as gubernatorial counsel to Bush in Texas, and Bush appointed him to that state’s highest court. Gonzales lost a major internal battle in February when his legal opinion that the administration need not apply Geneva Convention protections to Taliban and al Qaeda prisoners was overruled by the president. The State Department and Defense Department argued that concerns for international law and cooperation with allies like Great Britain and France argued in favor of prisoner-of-war protections. By year’s end, the counsel’s office was once again deeply involved in the foreign policy thicket as the central address for all legal issues related to plans for war against Iraq. Those who know Gonzales say his low profile is intentional. He views himself as an in-house lawyer whose job is to serve his client, not as the focus of attention himself. “I think Gonzales has done a good job on an unusually wide spectrum of issues,” says Fred Fielding of Wiley, Rein & Fielding, a White House counsel in the Ronald Reagan administration. “His unique understanding of the challenges of the office, coupled with his close relationship with his client, mean that he has been able to provide terrific support.”

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