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Human Rights

Is This The Best We Can Do?

Why Latinos and all Americans are not served well by the confirmation of Alberto Gonzales as Attorney General.
Alberto Gonzales was confirmed Thursday by a 60-36 vote of the U.S. Senate as the nation's first Latino Attorney General,157 years and two days after the United States and Mexico signed the Treaty of Guadalupe Hidalgo, on February 1, 1848.That treaty ended the Mexican-American War, which began, ironically, as a dispute over Texas, where Gonzales was born and raised. Gonzales, now the highest-ranking Latino in government, is practically the poster child for Article IX of the treaty which conferred "the enjoyment of all the rights of citizens of the United States according to the principles of the Constitution" upon the new Mexican-Americans and their descendants.

And now look how far we've come... or have we? Gonzales is touted as the proverbial American "bootstrap" success story- the second of eight children, whose parents were children of Mexican immigrants, Gonzales was the only one in his family to complete college. Many of us share Gonzales' story. Like Gonzales, I was born and raised in Houston, a child of immigrant parents. My father, like Gonzales' father, is a construction worker. In fact, like Gonzales, I attended Douglas MacArthur High School in Houston. Gonzales and I have much in common,actually:similar family backgrounds and early education, both active in our communities, an interest in political science (his undergraduate major) and we both ended up in law school.

Then why, people ask me, don't I join in the "victory"? Why don't I join the Latinos across the United States who hail Gonzales' appointment as a sign of how far we have come, how we finally have a place at the table? Because I refuse to overlook the glaring injustices in Gonzales' record simply for the sake of putting a brown face in the White House. Because I don't believe (as some groups have conceded) that Gonzales "is not nearly as bad as we might have expected." Because I want to believe that just policies, human rights, and due process are infinitely more important than playing the race card. This myopic view that a Latino, any damn Latino, in the White House will trickle down to the rest of us has allowed many to turn a blind eye to Gonzales' track record on important legal issues. As a Latina, I feel my duty to my community is to do my homework in order to understand just exactly what Alberto Gonzales will bring to the White House.

There is more to Gonzales than the January 2002 memo he sent to President Bush in which he wrote, "In my judgment, this new paradigm [of war] renders obsolete [the Geneva Convention's] strict limitations on questioning of enemy prisoners." In that memo, Gonzales acknowledges that this position "would likely provoke widespread condemnation among our allies and in some domestic quarters." Despite repeated requests to explain the memo in his confirmation hearing, Gonzales failed to offer any legal reasoning for hisconclusions in the memo and opted instead to "promise" the Senate that, as Attorney General, he will abide by treaties prohibiting the torture of prisoners.

In support of the Senate's confirmation of Gonzales, Sen. Mitch McConnell (R-Kentucky), said, "Judge Gonzales doesn't owe anybody an apology for his record, but some owe him an apology for rimracking him with phony allegations instead of honoring his willingness to serve his country." Sen. McConnell is correct; Gonzales doesn't owe anyone an apology,he owes us an explanation. As Attorney General, Gonzales essentially represents the citizens of the United States. That includes me. I want Gonzales to explain how the legal reasoning he used in the January 2002 memo will translate to the policies he will set as our Attorney General.

More than that, I want Gonzales to explain the legal reasoning he used in his work before he was appointed White House Chief Counsel by George W. Bush. For example, as chief legal counsel for then-Gov. Bush in Texas from 1995 to 1997, Gonzales was responsible for writing a memo on the facts of each death penalty case.Bush decided whether a defendant should live or die based on Gonzales' memos. During Gonzales' term, Texas executed more prisoners than any other state. An examination in 2003 of the Gonzales memoranda by the Atlantic Monthly concluded: "Gonzales repeatedly failed to apprise the governor of crucial issues in the cases at hand: ineffective counsel, conflict of interest, mitigating evidence, even actual evidence of innocence." His memos caused Bush frequently to approve executions based on "only the most cursory briefings on the issues in dispute." Rather than informing the governor of the conflicting circumstances in a case, "The memoranda seem attuned to a radically different posture, assumed by Bush from the earliest days of his administration, one in which he sought to minimize his sense of legal and moral responsibility for executions."

Then, as a Texas Supreme Court Justice, Gonzales accepted donations from litigants. In the weeks between hearing oral arguments and making a decision in Henson v. Texas Farm Bureau Mutual Insurance, Justice Gonzales collected a $2,000 contribution premium from the Texas Farm Bureau (which runs the defendant insurance company in the case). In another case, Gonzales pocketed a $2,500 contribution from a law firm defending the Royal Insurance Company just before hearing oral arguments in Embrey v. Royal Insurance. In law school, we learned to avoid even the appearance of impropriety. Did Gonzales miss that class?

Gonzales was then Chief Justice of the Texas Supreme Court from 1998-2000. During that time, Dick Cheney was head of Halliburton, which was the second-largest corporate contributor to Texas Supreme Court races. Over a period of seven years, five cases involving Halliburton came before the court, and the court consistently ruled in favor of the corporation or let a lower court decision favorable to Halliburton stand without re-hearing the case. During this same period, Gonzales lawfully accepted $14,000 from Enron, yet he subsequently did not recuse himself from the Administration's investigation of the Enron scandal when he was White House counsel. [Progressive Newswire, 11/10/04.]

Doesn't this "color" Gonzales' bootstrap success story? As the People for the American Way points out, Gonzales' record reveals "a lawyer who too often allows his legal judgment to be driven by his close relationship with the President rather than adherence to the law or the Constitution. The risk that such lack of independence poses for his ability as Attorney General to be the lawyer for all of the people of this country is simply too great to warrant his confirmation."

I want Gonzales to live up to what former President Jimmy Carter exhorted at the 2004 Democratic Convention: "In repudiating extremism, we need to recommit ourselves to a few common-sense principles that should transcend partisan differences. First, we cannot enhance our own security if we place in jeopardy what is most precious to us, namely the centrality of human rights in our daily lives and in global affairs. Second, we cannot maintain our historic self-confidence as a people if we generate public panic. Third, we cannot do our duty as citizens and patriots if we pursue an agenda that polarizes and divides our country. Next, we cannot be true to ourselves if we mistreat others. And finally, in the world at large, we cannot lead if our leaders mislead."

Gonzales does not come close to this "ideal." Latinos who blindly stand behind Gonzales have lost sight of more than our future, they have forgotten our past and our present. Believe me, I know plenty of brilliant, talented, judicious Latinas/os, including some from high-ranking government positions, and we could have done a lot better than Gonzales. Confirming his nomination, given his clear record of injustices, tells the world that not only is he the best we think we can do, but that a record of supporting torture and death doesn't bother us. As a Latina committed to social justice, plenty of things the Bush administration has done have been "not in my name," but this nomination and confirmation are one of the worst.


Marisa Arrona earned her law degree in 2003 from the University of California, Berkeley, where she served as the Editor-in-Chief of the Berkeley La Raza Law Journal, and was a member of the Coalition for Diversity and the La Raza Students Association.  She writes about social justice issues on her blog, sensory overload.
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