Schumer: Gonzales Genuinely Good Man, Lacks Independence And Openness To Be Good Attorney General
Hearings Show Still Sees Role as Presidential Counsel, Not Attorney General
US Senator Charles E. Schumer delivered the following statement at today's Judiciary Committee vote on the nomination of the Honorable Alberto Gonzales to be Attorney General of the United States:
Mr. Chairman, I have to be honest with you, this has been one of the most difficult votes on a nominee I've had to make since coming to the Senate.
I like Judge Gonzales. I respect him. I think he's a gentleman and a genuinely good man.
We've worked well together, especially when it's come to filling the vacancies on New York's federal bench. He's been candid with me, he's been open to compromise.
Our interactions haven't just been cordial, they've been pleasant. I've enjoyed the giveandtake we've engaged in.
When President Bush nominated Judge Gonzales to be Attorney General, my initial reaction was positive. Unlike with judicial nominations which are for life, Cabinet officers serve the President and I generally believe we should show deference to his choices.
I was inclined to support Judge Gonzales. I believed and I said publicly that Judge Gonzales was a much less polarizing figure than Senator Ashcroft had been.
But being less polarizing than John Ashcroft isn't enough, alone, to get my vote.
Even if you are as Judge Gonzales is a good person with topnotch legal qualifications, you still must have the independence necessary to be the nation's chief law enforcement officer.
The Attorney General is unlike all the other Cabinet officers. For those other Cabinet officers, simply carrying out the President's agenda is enough. But to be a good Attorney General, unqualified deference to the President isn't enough.
Unlike all the other Cabinet positions where your role is to implement and advance the President's policies, as Attorney General as the nation's chief law enforcement officer. your job is to enforce the law, all the laws, whether they help or hurt the Administration's objectives.
The position requires a greater degree of independence than, for example, the Secretary of State, whose obligation is to advance the President's interests abroad.
When the White House asks the Justice Department, "Can we do X?", the Justice Department is charged with giving an objective answer, not one tailored to achieve the President's goals.
There are two models for an Attorney General: loyalist and independent.
We all know that there have been Attorneys General over the years who have been close to the President there's no better example than Robert F. Kennedy who served his own brother.
That said, no one ever doubted that, in the confines of the Oval Office, Bobby Kennedy would oppose his brother if he though the President was wrong.
Judge Gonzales is more of a loyalist than an independent. That alone certainly doesn't disqualify him. But it does raise concerns.
After an extensive review of the record, unfortunately and sadly, and despite my great personal affection for Judge Gonzales, his testimony before the Committee turned me around and changed my vote from yes to no.
He was so circumspect in his answers, so unwilling to leave a micron of space between his views and the President's, that I now have real doubts whether he can perform the job of Attorney General. In short, Judge Gonzales still seems to see himself as counsel to the President, not Attorney General, the chief law enforcement officer of the land.
I'd like to give a little history.
Judge Gonzales came and saw me back in December. We had a good conversation about a range of topics.
I respected and appreciated his commitment to recuse himself from the investigation into the felony disclosure of thencovert CIA agent Valerie Plame's identity.
I told him that I understand that 9/11 created a brave new world and the war on terror required a reassessment of the rules of war.
I told him that given the enemies we now face, we can't afford to be doctrinaire.
I told him that I support the Administration when it comes to aggressively reexamining the way we do business and interrogate witnesses. I agree that we have to make sure we're doing everything we can to protect American families from those who would do us harm.
But I also told Judge Gonzales that I was troubled that the Administration had undertaken its reworking or reinterpretation of the rules of war behind closed doors rather than engaging Congress, the American public, and the international community in an open and direct fashion.
Time and time again, this Administration has gotten itself in trouble by trying to go it alone rather than doing business out in the open. Whether it was the Total Information Awareness Project, the TIPS program, or torture, they've been burned by their peculiar penchant for secrecy.
So I encouraged him to be candid with the Committee when discussing these issues. I encorauged him to give us some hope that he would run a very different Justice Department than John Ashcroft's.
Unfortunately, even a cursory review of his answers reveals strict adherence to the White House line and barely a drop of independence.
A set of answers very important to me came in response to my questions on the nuclear option.
When we met privately, I asked Judge Gonzales about his position on the constitutionality of the nuclear option. He said he hadn't recently reviewed the applicable constitutuonal clauses and that, in any event, it was a matter reserved for the Senate.
I asked Judge Gonzales to look at the Constitution and told him I'd ask the question again at the hearing. I informed him that his answer on this question would weigh heavily in my decision whether to support his confirmation.
At the hearing, when I asked Judge Gonzales about the nuclear option, rather than being candid, he ducked, dodged, and weaved.
I asked him three times to give us an opinion and each time he refused.
I asked him twice more in writing and again he refused to answer.
In one of those questions, I asked him to imagine he was counsel to a United States Senator who was seeking his opinion on the constitutionality of the nuclear option. Again, he refused to answer.
This is a crucial issue for me for two reasons: first, the importance of the nuclear option and second, the importance of Judge Gonzales' independence as Attorney General.
I believe the nuclear option would be so deeply destructive that it would turn the United States Senate into a legislative wasteland. Madison's "cooling saucer" would be shattered into shards. It's something you'd expect to see from banana republics, not the Grand Old Party.
The nuclear option is Alice in Wonderland meets the Twilight Zone, but with very real consequences.
It's patently obvious that the Constitution doesn't require an upordown vote on a judicial nominee. And it should have been easy for Judge Gonzales to say so.
But he refused. And that pattern repeated itself. On question after question, on torture and nearly everything else, it almost seemed like Judge Gonzales was going out of his way to avoid answering us. He demonstrated a lack of straightforwardness and independence. For me, that is the straw which broke the camel's back.
If his answers are any indication, Judge Gonzales still sees himself as a White House counsel, rather than a nominee to be Attorney General.
The Attorney General, as chief law enforcement officer, requires independent judgment and an ability at crucial times to stand up to the President.
I was hoping that we'd see an independent Alberto Gonzales. Instead we saw someone who, almost robotically, continues to hew to the Administration line.
When push comes to shove, the Attorney General needs to be able to stand up to the White House. Judge Gonzales' answers don't show that kind of independence.
We live in crucial times. The age old struggle between security and liberty which defined so many of the Founding Fathers' debates is alive and kicking. In fact, at no time since the internment of Japanese citizens in World War II, has it been more relevant.
We should have open debate about where the lines should be drawn. We should not be afraid to confront the difficult questions that face us.
I've gotten in trouble with many on the Left for suggesting that there should be a reexamination of how we interrogate terror suspects. If a terrorist knew where a nuclear bomb was in an American city and we had 30 minutes to find out where, my guess is everyone in this room would say, "Do what it takes."
But we can't just remake the rules behind closed doors.
Judge Gonzales' hearing was an opportunity for a real debate on these issues. Instead, we got canned answers.
I have great respect for Judge Gonzales. He has the kind of Horatio Alger story that makes us all so proud to be Americans. It's truly an amazing country when a man can rise from such humble beginnings to be nominated Attorney General of the United States.
And I am mindful of the fact that, if he is confirmed as I anticipate he will be, Judge Gonzales will become the nation's first Hispanic Attorney General. It's a tremendous success story that makes this vote even more difficult.
When I called Judge Gonzales last night to tell him how I'd be voting, he was understandably disappointed, but he was, as always, a total gentleman. He assured me we'd continue working together to solve our nation's problems. He assured me he'd prove me wrong and I hope he does.
But this is just too significant a job at too important a time to have an Attorney General about whom I have such severe doubts.
I really have no choice but to, with sadness, vote "no".