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Positioned for a Call to Justice

When Bush was elected governor of Texas in 1994, the local legal community knew he was looking for a Hispanic to become his staff legal counsel. And Gonzales was ready for something new. By then, he had spent more than a decade as a "transactional" lawyer, negotiating business contracts for clients, and his personal life had changed. He and his first wife had divorced amicably in 1985, and he had married a longtime friend, Rebecca Turner. They have three sons (one is from her previous marriage).

Gonzales also devoted much of his free time in the '80s and early '90s to helping Houston's Hispanic community. According to lawyers and activists, Gonzales felt a strong obligation to be a role model and believed that meant more than remaining at a prestigious law firm and earning a lucrative salary.

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

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"He started giving back early on," says Dorothy Caram, a prominent Hispanic activist in Houston. "He was committed to helping those coming up behind him." Says Gasper Mir, a Houston accountant: "He had a high incentive to help his community -- he felt he had a voice."

Bush promptly hired him on the recommendation of a number of Gonzales' law partners. Rebecca -- who worked for the Texas comptroller's office before moving to Washington last month -- knew their lives would change in Austin. "It was very difficult for me to make the change, to go from a partner's salary to government salary," she says. "But it never caused Al a moment of anxiety. He knew we'd be fine. He knew the door had been opened for him and sacrifices had to be made. It was an easy choice."

If it was a future in public service Gonzales sought, he picked the right horse to ride. Bush, who prizes loyalty, immediately saw that the low-key Gonzales could be a trusted adviser, took him into the inner circle and repeatedly gave him opportunities as well as a nickname, "Fredo."

It was Gonzales who in 1996, as Bush's gubernatorial counsel, got Bush out of jury duty on a drunken driving case, in which the governor might have had to disclose his own DWI arrest 20 years earlier.

In late 1997, Bush appointed Gonzales Texas secretary of state, the official who maintains state records and serves as the chief election officer. Just over a year later, Bush appointed him to the Texas Supreme Court, a controversial move because Gonzales had never served on a lower court. Gonzales confided to friends at the time that he wasn't sure it was the right job for him. He liked working in the governor's office, liked the action.

But Gonzales says he grew to love the bench. To remain on the court, he had to run for election in 2000, something his wife says he thought was inappropriate for a judge because of the fundraising involved. But Texans for Public Justice, a legal watchdog group, has criticized Gonzales for accepting money from parties with issues that might come before the court, such as Texans for Lawsuit Reform, a conservative group that gave Gonzales $20,000 and sent out a fundraising letter on his behalf. Gonzales raised close to $700,000 for his campaign.

"He didn't want to know who gave the money," says Rebecca Gonzales. "His campaign staff would come up to him at a reception and say, 'Be nice to so-and-so, he gave a check,' and he'd say, 'I'm going to be nice to everyone.' He hated the money part of it; he hated the idea of judges having to raise money. It sickens him."

A View of the Court

Gonzales spends much of his time at the White House these days screening potential federal judges for an administration committed to putting its conservative imprint on the courts. One of his first moves in Washington was to eliminate the historic involvement of the American Bar Association -- considered liberal-leaning -- in the selection of federal judges, although Gonzales himself is a member of the ABA.

Gonzales says he and Bush share the opinion that the role of federal judges should be "fairly limited, and that is to interpret the law and to resist the temptation -- and believe me, there is a temptation -- to legislate from the bench."

He declines to comment on the Supreme Court involvement in the presidential election.

Gonzales says the "biggest problem" with the government system today is that "too many of our social issues and problems are expected to be decided in the court."

Historically, he notes, social issues were "debated and decided, appropriately in my opinion, in the legislature, churches, community groups, civil groups. And now because these community groups themselves are disintegrating, more and more is expected from judges, and we don't have the expertise."

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