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Positioned for a Call to Justice

"I just try to keep it as normal as possible," he says about relating to his family. "I don't talk [with them] about myself or work unless specifically asked.

"What's happening in my life is no more important that what's happening in my brother's life. It is difficult in the sense that it makes you painfully aware of the inequities in life. It does makes you wonder why a person who has grown up in exactly the same environment is able to succeed."

White House counsel Al Gonzales has been suggested as a potential Supreme Court justice. (Lucian Perkins - The Washington Post)

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'We Know Very Little'

Within weeks of Gonzales' arrival in Washington, advocacy groups on both the right and the left were well versed on his résumé, his contributions to Texas's historically Democratic Hispanic community, and his rulings from the Texas Supreme Court.

But it is what court watchers do not know that troubles almost all of them.

Liberals and conservatives alike view a Gonzales nomination to the Supreme Court as a challenge because he lacks a record either on the bench or through legal writings that might identify a specific ideology. Both sides also believe that, for this very reason, the Democratic takeover of the Senate has enhanced his chances, because President Bush is unlikely to nominate a conservative firebrand who could ignite a vitriolic confirmation battle.

In stark contrast to more prominent conservative candidates for the high court, Gonzales has written little and has said less. The Texas Supreme Court handles only civil and juvenile cases, and many of his opinions there dealt with business issues, making it difficult to discern his judicial philosophy. There were, however, a few rulings regarding abortion that infuriated antiabortion activists but did nothing to comfort Democrats.

"Gonzales frightens groups like ours," says Elizabeth Cavendish, legal director of the National Abortion and Reproductive Rights Action League (NARAL), which Cavendish says would oppose a Gonzales nomination. "It will be harder to mobilize opposition because he has such a scanty record. And if he ends up being the first Hispanic nominated, it will be considered a bold move, and harder for people devoted to progressive causes to convince senators to give him the same level of scrutiny."

Some conservatives are also skeptical, fearful that Gonzales could turn out to be another David Souter, who was appointed to the Supreme Court by the first President Bush but today is considered one of the more liberal members of the body. "We know very little about Judge Gonzales -- as an individual and as a public official," says Thomas Jipping, director of the conservative Free Congress Foundation's Judicial Selection Monitoring Project.

Gonzales' friends and former law partners have long assumed that he is a pro-business fiscal conservative, and more moderate on social issues such as abortion. But most concede that they've never discussed those issues with him.

Gonzales paints himself as a largely apolitical lawyer, who began leaning toward the GOP only after joining the prestigious Houston firm of Vinson & Elkins. He says he votes for the person, not the party, adding that he would have supported George W. Bush even if he had been a Democrat. And he insists that when deciding cases, he is not guided by any ideology -- only the law.

But his impartiality, he cautions, should never be confused with ambivalence. "While I may seem to be neutral, I have very strong convictions about issues," he says. "But as a judge, I think it would be inappropriate to apply them."

'Sacrifices Had to Be Made'

After graduating from Rice, Gonzales entered Harvard Law School. He says he pieced together various forms of financial aid to pay for the pricey private schools -- the GI Bill, student loans, scholarships. "My parents didn't pay a dime," he says.

Gonzales kept a relatively low profile at Harvard, largely socializing with other married classmates. His friends recall that he simply wanted to return home to Houston and become a business lawyer -- which he did at Vinson & Elkins.

"I was V&E's first minority partner," he says proudly.

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