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For years, White House Counsel Alberto Gonzales has been on the short list of those President George W. Bush might pick to fill a vacancy on the Supreme Court. Instead, the president on Wednesday afternoon tapped Gonzales, who has played a leading role in the administration’s war on terror, to take over for Attorney General John Ashcroft. The nomination ended a brief period of speculation that began after Ashcroft’s departure was announced late on Tuesday. Gonzales, a former Texas Supreme Court justice, now must be confirmed by the Senate. In a letter to the president, Ashcroft said he believed the Justice Department would benefit from “new leadership and fresh inspiration.” Ashcroft, who oversaw the department’s response to the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks and pushed for speedy passage of the USA Patriot Act, said he was leaving the nation “stronger and safer” than when he took the post. Critics considered him insensitive to civil liberties concerns and weak on civil rights and environmental enforcement. Ashcroft will stay on at the department until Gonzales is confirmed. While Gonzales, 49, has been a highly influential member of Bush’s inner circle and a key architect of the administration’s legal response to Sept. 11, he has remained nearly invisible to the outside world. His views on such hot-button issues as abortion and affirmative action are largely unknown. The American Civil Liberties Union called for “a full and thorough Senate confirmation process” that would examine Gonzales’ position on civil liberties and human rights issues. During the confirmation process, Gonzales will undoubtedly face tough questions about his role in internal administration discussions about the detention and interrogation of Taliban fighters and alleged al Qaeda members in U.S. custody. In January 2002, Gonzales authored a memo calling some provisions of Geneva Conventions “quaint” and recommending that the conventions not be applied to Taliban and al Qaeda detainees. He also sought and accepted a legal opinion from the Justice Department’s Office of Legal Counsel that mapped out defenses to legal prohibitions on torture. In response to Gonzales’ nomination, People for the American Way issued a statement tying Gonzales’ policy advice to the prison abuse at Abu Ghraib. Ralph Neas, president of the liberal interest group, also criticized Gonzales’ support for the Patriot Act and his role in the selection of controversial judicial nominees. “America needs an attorney general who is committed to protecting both national security and the nation’s Constitution,” Neas stated in the release. But Gonzales, who would be the first Hispanic attorney general if confirmed, has his supporters. “He seems like a great choice to me,” said Todd Gaziano, a lawyer with the conservative Heritage Foundation. “He’s done an admirable job as White House counsel, advising the president on the many very difficult issues that the White House has faced.” Gonzales has had close ties to Bush since the president’s years as governor of Texas. A graduate of Harvard University Law School and a former Vinson & Elkins partner, Gonzales came aboard as Bush’s gubernatorial legal counsel in 1995. In 1997, Bush named Gonzales Texas secretary of state and, in 1998, placed him on the Texas Supreme Court. Elliot Mincberg, general counsel of People for the American Way, describes Gonzales’ short record as a judge as “conservative” but not “extreme right wing.” Indeed, when discussed as a potential Supreme Court nominee, Gonzales’ most potent opposition came from the far right wing of the Republican party, which considered Gonzales too liberal. But conservative Christian groups, despite their newfound clout as perhaps the decisive vote in the 2004 election, are unlikely to block Gonzales’ nomination to head the Justice Department. “The president has shown himself to be such a man of character and integrity, I think evangelical Christians really trust him,” said Roberta Combs, president of the Christian Coalition. “Whoever he chooses for Cabinet members, we’ll support 100 percent.”

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