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Change at Justice

Thursday, November 11, 2004; Page A36

ATTORNEY GENERAL John D. Ashcroft's decision to step down is welcome. Mr. Ashcroft struck a polarizing tone as the nation's chief law enforcement officer over the past four years; lower-key leadership that seeks common ground could make a world of difference. Unfortunately, President Bush's lightning-quick choice to replace him, White House Counsel Alberto R. Gonzales, has not been a stranger to controversy either. While less famous, Mr. Gonzales, one of the president's most loyal lieutenants here as he was in Austin, has been an architect of harmful policies related to the prisoner abuse scandal and the war on terrorism more generally. He brings a lot of baggage to the job of healing the breach his predecessor created, baggage the Senate Judiciary Committee should inspect carefully.

Mr. Ashcroft was nominated as a one-term senator, fresh off a reelection defeat, to please Mr. Bush's conservative base, with full knowledge that he would infuriate Democrats. Mr. Ashcroft did not disappoint, with especially unfortunate results after Sept. 11, 2001. He not only pushed controversial policy proposals but also used rhetoric that questioned the patriotism of those who disagreed with him, and he inappropriately hyped indictments and arrests. Mr. Ashcroft's Justice Department wrote a legal opinion suggesting that legal restrictions on torture might be unconstitutional. He presided over an alarming roundup of immigrants after the Sept. 11 attacks. Mr. Ashcroft's public persona made building a consensus on profoundly difficult questions all the harder.

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Yet the USA Patriot Act would probably not have been very different had someone else been attorney general -- and in any event it wasn't nearly as threatening as its critics believed. And Mr. Ashcroft has, on some issues, been a voice of moderation; the Justice Department pushed within the administration for a more reasonable approach to the detention of enemy combatants domestically, for example. In fact, on these issues, the outgoing attorney general was sometimes outflanked on the right by the man the president has chosen to replace him.

Mr. Gonzales, soft-spoken, smart and discreet, has won the admiration of many in Washington. The son of migrant workers, he would be the first Hispanic to serve as attorney general. We respect some of his views, particularly his stance on affirmative action, for the same reason that conservatives might have opposed his nomination to the bench.

But his nomination also raises questions too. Although there is a long tradition of presidents naming close friends, campaign managers and even relatives to head the Justice Department, we think the post would be better filled by more independent figures. Such nominees were available to the president; either of the men who have served Mr. Ashcroft as deputy attorneys general, Larry D. Thompson or James B. Comey, for example. Most of all, the Senate should carefully examine Mr. Gonzales's role in the decisions that helped lead to the Abu Ghraib scandal.

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