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THE POST-ASHCROFT ERA
GONZALES HAS SOME TROUBLING HISTORY, BUT HE SHOULD WIN CABINET CONFIRMATION

Alberto Gonzales, President Bush's choice to succeed John Ashcroft as attorney general, has a record that rightly causes concern among those alarmed by the erosion of civil liberties and violations of human rights at American military prisons. But in the absence of new, disqualifying information, nothing in the public record appears to trump the president's right to include Gonzales on his new team for a second term.

Democrats have a right to challenge Gonzales, and should question him about his previous positions. That's part of the confirmation process. But they ought not to make these proceedings overly contentious.

That said, Gonzales has his troubling points. The fact that he designed a system at Guantanamo Bay that was ruled unconstitutional is not comforting for anyone who believes in justice. Adding to that discomfort is Gonzales' role in helping to write the Patriot Act, parts of which are an unnecessary infringement upon the rights of Americans.

In addition, while Bush was governor of Texas, it was Gonzales who did his bidding on issues related to the death penalty, which that state uses with frightening disregard of evidence nationwide that innocent people have been wrongly convicted, with some being sentenced to death.

Still, compared to Ashcroft, who seemed intent on creating his own world in which secrecy was the norm and constitutional rights were negotiable, Gonzales seems like a moderate.

In a notable case that went before the Texas Supreme Court while he served as a judge, he voted to allow a 17-year-old girl to get a waiver from having to inform her parents of an abortion, because the waiver was allowed under state law. Gonzales has always declined to talk about his personal views regarding abortion, or the ruling that legalized it -- Roe v. Wade. Still, his public record would indicate that he is a likely opponent of abortion rights and upholding Roe. If so, his ruling in the Texas case at least shows a man committed to following the law.

Gonzales also has shown signs of empathy for racial preferences in college admissions. Coming from a modest background as the son of a migrant worker, and now with the chance to become the first Hispanic to serve as U.S. Attorney General, perhaps he understands how difficult it can be for some to achieve the American dream.

Sen. Edward Kennedy of Massachusetts has already voiced his concern about the Gonzales nomination. Civil libertarians and human rights groups are in full battle mode, circulating copies of drafts of memorandums Gonzales or his aides composed detailing the "nature of the new war" on terror and how it "renders obsolete Geneva's strict limitations on questioning of enemy prisoners and renders quaint some of its provisions."

That gives us pause as well. But given his record as a whole, it does not preclude his inclusion in the cabinet.

Many see this choice as a prelude to a Supreme Court nomination. That's a higher bar than appointment as attorney general, and it may be that his record should be evaluated in a different light for that position. But that's an argument for a different day. For now, he deserves confirmation.

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