Divisive Issue Is Decisive for Some

Attorney General Alberto Gonzales, right, with the FBI's Robert Mueller, has said Roe v. Wade is
Attorney General Alberto Gonzales, right, with the FBI's Robert Mueller, has said Roe v. Wade is "the law of the land." (By Brendan Smialowski -- Getty Images)
By Charles Lane
Washington Post Staff Writer
Thursday, July 7, 2005

To conservative activists, the Supreme Court's 1973 Roe v. Wade decision recognizing a right to abortion is a constitutional abomination, the most outrageous misuse of the court's power since the justices voted to deny African Americans citizenship in the 1857 Dred Scott case.

But Attorney General Alberto R. Gonzales, a possible Supreme Court nominee, has never voiced such a harsh assessment of the Roe decision. At least twice he has called it "the law of the land."

In each of his high-profile government roles -- as a justice on the Texas Supreme Court, as White House counsel and as attorney general -- he has shown little personal zeal for the antiabortion cause.

Perhaps more than any other aspect of Gonzales's record, it is his cautious attitude toward Roe that fuels the conservative groundswell against his possible elevation to the high court.

"It's one reason there's near-unanimity against Gonzales among conservative groups," said J.C. Willke, president of the Cincinnati-based Life Issues Institute, an antiabortion organization.

Willke said his doubts were confirmed by the answer he got from Gonzales at a May 30, 2003, meeting, when he asked the then-White House counsel whether, "regarding Roe v. Wade , stare decisis would be governing." Stare decisis is the legal principle that courts should avoid overruling existing precedent.

"Yes," Gonzales replied, according to Willke. The audience of about 500 conservative activists murmured disapprovingly and there was some booing, Willke said.

Willke e-mailed his account of these events to fellow antiabortion activists last year, and the message was sent out again earlier this week by Manuel A. Miranda of the conservative Third Branch Conference.

Justice Department spokesman Kevin Madden said Gonzales would not comment on Willke's account or any other issues related to the Supreme Court nomination process.

As attorney general, Gonzales is in the unusual position of both helping in the search for a candidate for the court while also being a candidate himself. In an interview over the weekend during a trip to Baghdad, Gonzales declined to comment on his chances. "I love being attorney general," he said.

Gonzales's most recent public acknowledgment of Roe 's status as precedent came during his confirmation hearings on Jan. 5.

Sen. Richard J. Durbin (D-Ill.) asked whether Gonzales, like his predecessor, John D. Ashcroft, would pledge to enforce Roe despite any personal disagreements he has with the decision.


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