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Sizing Up Man Who Would Be Atty. Gen.

November 26, 2004|Richard B. Schmitt | Times Staff Writer

WASHINGTON — In November 2000, the Texas Supreme Court, fast shedding its long-standing reputation as a friend to injured workers and other plaintiffs, did something unexpected.

Taking the lead was Alberto R. Gonzales, the court's newest member, who had been appointed by George W. Bush, the governor at the time.

While the presidential election ballots were still being counted in Florida, the staunchly pro-business court in Texas revived a lawsuit that had been filed by the family of a deceased metal pourer. The laborer had died of a lung disease caused by years of exposure to asbestos fibers at the aluminum plant where he had worked for 25 years.

Lower courts had dismissed the suit because the man had brought a previous case over another asbestos-related condition he suffered, and state law barred plaintiffs from filing multiple suits for the same toxic exposure. But the state's high court, in an opinion written by Gonzales, overturned that ruling.

"Permitting limitations to run on terminal injuries before the plaintiff knows of them is unjust," Gonzales wrote. He added that the interests of the asbestos companies "must be balanced against the plaintiff's need of an opportunity to seek redress for the gravest injuries, those culminating in wrongful death."

The opinion by Gonzales, President Bush's nominee to become the next attorney general, suggests he might be less doctrinaire than his work as White House counsel indicates.

As counsel to Bush during the last four years, Gonzales solicited a memo that purportedly allowed U.S. operatives to torture suspected terrorists picked up in Afghanistan. He helped craft rules on the legal status of prisoners at the U.S. naval base at Guantanamo Bay, Cuba, that were rejected by the courts. He has called portions of the Geneva Convention protecting prisoners of war "obsolete" and "quaint."

But friends and former associates, and even some adversaries, say Gonzales also has shown a balance that has been obscured in his service to Bush over the years.

Now, with his presumed ascent to the top of the Justice Department, people are starting to wonder which Gonzales will show up for work: the relative moderate who emphasizes a low-key, fact-based approach to the law, or the ardent advocate who follows the marching orders of his president and friend and his expansive view of presidential power.

"You have not seen him in the role where he would be making decisions in a completely independent way. As attorney general you are independently enforcing the law. As White House counsel, you are advocating the interests of a client. It is a big difference," said Roland Garcia, a Houston lawyer, friend and politically active Democrat who considers himself one of Gonzales' biggest supporters. "You cannot really pigeonhole Al as conservative or moderate or any of those labels."

James Thompson, a partner at the Houston law firm Vinson & Elkins, where Gonzales worked a dozen years as a corporate lawyer starting in the early 1980s, said: "There is no question that Al is loyal. But he is also an attorney, and he is loyal, when at work, to his clients."

"When he is confirmed as attorney general," Thompson said, "his client will be the United States and the people of the United States, and I would expect that Al would bring the same sense of loyalty to that job."

But Gonzales illustrates how Bush is turning to friends, cronies and associates in stocking his second-term Cabinet, and the relationship with Gonzales may be the closest of them all. Gonzales has been a Bush confidant for a decade, and the president often cites Gonzales' personal journey -- a migrant workers' son who became a graduate of Harvard Law School -- as personifying his view of the American dream.

"They have the closest, deepest relationship of trust and confidence you can imagine," Garcia said. "They have connected at a very deep level. They are soul mates."

The men were introduced in the mid-1990s by another Texan, Harriet Miers, whom Bush on Nov. 17 named to succeed Gonzales as White House counsel. That connection seems likely to ensure an extraordinary degree of cooperation between the Justice Department and the White House -- although some career officials fear it also may compromise or erode the department's independence.

The Senate Judiciary Committee, which can confirm or reject Gonzales' nomination, has not set a date for hearings. But it is expected to closely scrutinize his ties to the president, among other issues.

Democrats are expected to examine Gonzales' role in setting policy in the war on terrorism. Of particular interest is a legal opinion he solicited from the Justice Department in August 2002. The memo discussed the liability of CIA agents for their treatment of suspected Al Qaeda and Taliban detainees in Afghanistan, and posited a theory that the agents were exempt from anti-torture laws.

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