WASHINGTON — When President George W. Bush announced the appointment of Alberto R. Gonzales as White House legal counsel last December, he emphasized how important it was for him to choose "a person I can trust." Gonzales, whom Bush appointed to the Texas Supreme Court in 1998, is considered one of the president's closest and most loyal advisors. He is widely rumored to be among the president's top choices for the U.S. Supreme Court, should a vacancy occur.
New to the byzantine world of Washington politics, Gonzales must learn the ropes while fulfilling the duties of one of the White House's most sensitive posts. As the president's legal counsel, he counts among his responsibilities the selection and vetting of judicial appointees, including those to the Supreme Court, providing ethics advice to the White House and reviewing bills, pardons, statutes, proposals, speeches and proclamations. Gonzales is a cordial, unassuming figure for a man whose duty it is to defend the presidency.
Born in San Antonio and raised in Houston, Gonzales is the second of eight children born to Pablo and Maria Gonzales, a couple who had met while working as migrant farm workers in the Midwest. Although an honor student, Gonzales joined the U.S. Air Force right out of high school. "There wasn't a push to go to college," he says.
After two years in the Air Force and two more at the Air Force Academy, Gonzales cast aside his dreams of being a pilot and decided to study law. He later transferred to Rice University, where he graduated with a degree in political science in 1979. He went on to graduate from Harvard Law School and become a partner at the Houston firm of Vinson & Elkins. In 1995, then-Gov. Bush appointed Gonzales as his general counsel. Two years later, he made him Texas secretary of state, a post that oversees elections and acts as a liaison with Mexico. From 1999 to 2000, Gonzales served on Texas' highest civil court, where he developed a reputation as a thoughtful and ideologically moderate justice.
While the Gonzales household had neither a telephone nor hot running water for most of his childhood, "The Judge," as he is referred to in the White House, says he learned conservative values from his hard-working parents. "I don't remember my parents voting, but I learned the value of self-responsibility," he says.
Gonzales denies that he is a candidate for a Supreme Court job. "I'm focusing on what I have to do now as counsel to the president," he insists. Nonetheless, Gonzales has been giving frequent press interviews and responds to questions with the caution and deliberation of a man with an eye on higher office. Last week, however, Gonzales came under fire from liberal groups protesting Bush's decision to end the American Bar Assn.'s longtime, semi-official role in vetting potential candidates for federal judgeships.
Married with three children, Gonzales is 45 years old. He was interviewed in his corner office in the West Wing of the White House.
Question: When you were appointed to the Texas Supreme Court by then-Gov. George W. Bush, you were quoted as saying that it is important to maintain a Latino presence on the state's highest court. Why?
Answer: In a state so heavily Hispanic, it is important to have at the highest levels of government people who look like the citizens who are being served by that government, that have some affinity to the leadership of government. Whether you're Hispanic or African American or Democrat or Republican, decisions about justice should not depend on those factors, but the truth of the matter is inescapable. It brings a form of legitimacy to our gov- ernment. People have confidence when they see people of their own color making decisions, particularly from the bench.
Q: Does a minority judge see issues of justice from a different perspective?
A: I think we all . . . are influenced by . . . our past experiences. But quite frankly--and I'm going to tell you a little about my judicial philosophy--if I do my job right as a judge, people should not be able to tell how I feel about an issue personally. Because what I'm supposed to do is try to discern, try to find out what the legislature intended when it passed that law and to apply that law irrespective of my own personal feelings about that law. Oftentimes, I had to interpret statutes in Texas that I felt were terrible public policy, but that is immaterial. If I want to change that policy, I need to hang up my robe and go run for the Texas Legislature.
Q: When you evaluate nominees for federal judgeships, what will be the most important criterion: judicial philosophy, character or their approach to the law?