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When Alberto “Al” Gonzales takes up residence in Washington, D.C., in the coming weeks, he’ll be in the familiar role of taking on an unfamiliar job. Six years ago, Gonzales was a transactional lawyer at Houston’s Vinson & Elkins with little state government experience when newly elected Texas Gov. George W. Bush picked the 1982 Harvard Law School graduate that he hardly knew to be his general counsel. Bush, a Republican, promoted Gonzales to secretary of state in 1997. And one year later the governor surprised the appellate bar by appointing Gonzales to the Texas Supreme Court — even though Gonzales had never tried a case. This history makes Bush’s Dec. 17 announcement that Gonzales, 45, will be his top legal adviser as White House counsel not much of a surprise. The selection is in keeping with the president-elect’s track record of placing people in positions of power based on his trust in them rather than on the breadth of their experiences, several observers say. “We have a good relationship, and I think he respects and trusts myself,” Gonzales says. “I think he believes that I will be loyal and will do a good job for him.” Gonzales says he originally came to Bush’s attention during the administration of Bush’s father. In the late 1980s, the George Bush White House was making an effort to recruit qualified Hispanics and African-Americans for federal posts. Gonzales says he was interviewed for several posts, but turned down a federal appointment so he could make partner in V&E. He says he was surprised years later when he got a call from then-Gov. Bush asking Gonzales if he’d like to join him in Austin. “I asked him, ‘Why me?’ ” Gonzales says. “ And he said he had me checked out.” “This is how he put it: ‘The reason you first got on my radar screen was because you turned down my old man for a job,’ ” Gonzales says. “ He took a chance on me.” A MATTER OF TRUST When he reaches the White House, Gonzales says he will begin helping Bush sort through hundreds of people to fill federal posts. But one Texas lawyer who has studied Bush’s Texas Supreme Court appointments believes Bush won’t look far if he gets the chance to make one of the most coveted presidential appointments. “I think this is a prelude to a possible appointment to the United States Supreme Court,” says David Keltner of Gonzales’ most recent job offer. “He obviously has great faith in Al Gonzales’ legal abilities. I think as a result of that Al Gonzales must be the kind of judge he’d like to have on the Supreme Court,” says Keltner, a Fort Worth appellate attorney and past chairman of the State Bar of Texas board of directors. “In other words, Al Gonzales has his trust.” Bush made much of Gonzales’ humble upbringing in a two-bedroom house in San Antonio when announcing the White House counsel appointment. “Seven siblings; eight in the family. And now he’s going to be sitting at the right hand of the president of the United States,” Bush said. “That really explains what America can and should be about. “Al is a man who has only one standard in mind when it comes to ethics, and that is the highest of standards,” Bush said. Gonzales says he won’t speculate on whom Bush might appoint to the U.S. Supreme Court or the possibility he may be considered. “I appreciate the opportunities. There’s no question I’ve worked for it,” Gonzales says. “But sometimes you get these opportunities no matter how hard you work.” Gonzales’ judicial performance is in keeping with the other three Bush appointees to Texas’ high court. Gonzales, part of an increasingly powerful moderate block on the court, was known for cutting to the heart of cases during oral arguments. He says he’s written 16 majority opinions during his time on the high court. “He ended up being a mainstream member of the court,” says Austin appellate attorney Douglas Alexander. “I would kind of peg him as a judicial conservative, which is really what Bush was looking for in appointments as opposed to an agenda conservative.” Texas Supreme Court Chief Justice Tom Phillips says Gonzales is a bright lawyer. “He’s very cautious and careful and has a calm and deliberate temperament that will serve him well in his new job,” Phillips says. Phillips notes that Gonzales stayed on the court until he could get most of his pending opinions out and had cast votes in several difficult cases. But Phillips says it is always hard to lose a justice in the middle of a term. “There will be some inefficiencies in our operations,” he says. Having only eight justices on the court leaves open the possibility for tie votes. If there is a tie vote on a case, Phillips says, the court may have to hear new oral arguments. That has happened in the past, he says. Gonzales’ notable opinions include a 6-3 opinion in last year’s Texas Department of Transportation v. Able, which held that a governmental unit that enters into a joint enterprise can be liable under the Texas Tort Claims Act if it’s determined that sovereign immunity was waived — a decision that created a new cause of action for plaintiffs’ lawyers. He also authored Southwestern Refining Co. v. Julia Bernal, et al. (2000), a 6-3 decision in which the majority decertified the class action and found that 904 plaintiffs who alleged injuries arising from a refinery tank fire in Corpus Christi, Texas, did not have common issues that predominate. WHO’S NEXT? Three high court watchers believe Texas’ new governor, Republican Rick Perry — in his first high-profile judicial appointment — will replace Gonzales with another minority. Gonzales replaced Justice Raul Gonzalez, a conservative Democrat who’d been on the Texas Supreme Court for more than a decade. Gonzalez left the court in 1998 to become a private mediator. “He [Perry] has a commitment to diversity, and I think you will see that he will be making diverse choices in all his appointments,” says Kathy Walt, Perry’s spokeswoman. “It’s too early to say who he would appoint. He learned of Justice Gonzales’ appointment just moments before he entered the chambers to announce Henry Cuellar’s appointment,” she says. Cuellar, a Laredo, Texas, attorney and a Democrat in the state House of Representatives, is Perry’s choice for Texas secretary of state. One lawyer who may be under consideration is Hector DeLeon, an Austin business litigator who served as Bush’s Travis County campaign co-chairman in 1995 and 1998. “I know independently that my name has been presented to Gov. Perry as a possible appointee,” says DeLeon, who says he’d take the job even though it would mean a cut in pay. Much like appellate lawyers questioned Gonzales’ lack of judicial experience before he donned a Texas Supreme Court robe, some political commentators have wondered if Gonzales can be effective in the White House with his admitted lack of Washington connections. That shouldn’t be a problem, says George Christian, an Austin public affairs consultant who served as President Lyndon B. Johnson’s press secretary from 1966 to 1969. “The main thing is to have the president’s confidence. And Bush is going to surround himself with those people,” Christian says. “He needs people that he’s comfortable with and can give him good advice. And that is good.” “Gonzales is somebody who’s been near him [Bush] ever since he became governor,” Christian says. “I think they have a special relationship.” Gonzales says he has not officially begun interviewing lawyers to join his staff in Washington. The only person confirmed to join him so far is Stuart Bowen, who was Bush’s deputy general counsel and Gonzales’ first hire when he was general counsel in the governor’s office. Gonzales believes his staff may include as many as 13 lawyers — about half as many as President Bill Clinton employed — many with Washington experience. The move to D.C. leaves Gonzales with mixed feelings; he says he’ll miss Austin and the collegiality of the Texas Supreme Court. But, Gonzales says, “when the president asks you to do something, the answer is always going to be ‘yes.’ “

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