Opposing Gonzales

By Geraldine Sealey

Published January 4, 2005 7:41PM (EST)

For a while there, Alberto Gonzales' nomination to replace John Ashcroft as attorney general was surprisingly smooth for a lawyer with a dubious history of defending the rule of law. And by all indications, Gonzales will indeed survive the confirmation process. But with his confirmation hearing just two days away, a growing and increasingly vocal opposition threatens to prompt actual debate about putting a guy like Gonzales in charge of the Justice Department.

For their part, People for the American Way sent a letter today to senators opposing the Gonzales confirmation on several grounds after a thorough review of his record. Then there are the dozen retired military big guns who wrote an unheard of letter to the Judiciary Committee expressing "deep concern" about Gonzales in the A.G. post, describing him as being on the "wrong side of history" on the torture issue.

A group of 225 religious leaders have also written a letter -- this one asking that Gonzales join with them in denouncing all torture. As excerpted from the Talk Left blog: "We invite you to affirm with us that we are all are made in the image of God -- every human being. We invite you to acknowledge that no legal category created by mere mortals can revoke that status. You understand that torture -- the deliberate effort to undermine human dignity -- is a grave sin and affront to God. You would not deny that the systemic use of torture on prisoners at Abu Ghraib was fundamentally immoral, as is the deliberate rendering of any detainee to authorities likely to commit torture." We're not going to hold our collective breath waiting for Gonzales to publicly affirm any such thing, but you have to hand it to these religious leaders for trying.

The real question of the week, though, regarding the Gonzales matter, is how Senate Democrats will handle his confirmation hearing. Democrats may not have the votes in the new and even more GOP-dominated Congress to stop Gonzales' confirmation, but will they at the very least put on a good show of opposition? Speaking to the New York Times this week, Chuck Schumer sounded unnervingly ready to accept Bush's choice of Gonzales and seemed to absolve Democrats of any real duty to oppose his confirmation on the grounds that Cabinet positions usually get less scrutiny than Supreme Court nominees: "Generally, for an executive branch position the president gets the benefit of the doubt," he said. "The general feeling on the committee is that he has probably met that lowered threshold." We have to agree with law professor and blogger Michael Froomkin, who took issue with Schumer's remark: "The bar is pretty low when that 'lowered threshold' will admit a nominee who, in commissioning and passing on the torture memos participated in a scheme to attempt to 1. put a patina of legality on war crimes and 2. totally twist the Constitution to suggest the President has powers akin to Louis XIVth's and 3. mis-state the relevant precedents to make it seem like the above have substantial judicial support when in fact the opposite is true.

"There is of course an element of political calculation here. Many chickenhearted Senators believe that they expend political capital by opposing cabinet nominations, when in fact opposing the right ones may create it. But even if I'm wrong about that, for some things -- torture, fundamental constitutional principles -- the calculations should be left aside. As far as I'm concerned, Congress was almost as much to blame for Iraq as Bush -- they wrote him a blank check, with the Gulf of Tonkin precedent sitting there in front of them. If there isn't some serious attempt in Congress to come to grips with the torture scandal in the next year, then some of the torture dirt will stick to them as well."

Stay tuned, as they say.

Geraldine Sealey

Geraldine Sealey is senior news editor at Salon.com.

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