Wednesday, June 22, 2005

Gonzales as a Justice

Alberto Gonzales does not appear one of the two or three most likely candidates to become the next Supreme Court nominee, but he is creeping up there pretty quick. He features prominently in the most recent analysis of nomination scenarios, from Jan Crawford Greenburg of the Chicago Tribune (hat tip: SCOTUS nomination blog).

Gonzales raises a hard question. One the one hand, he is likely to be the most acceptable of the potential candidates to Democrats, because of his liberal to moderate stances on abortion and affirmative action. It would be a relief to see an easy confirmation, on which Republicans and Democrats were able to find consensus. Moreover, for the same reasons he would be confirmed with relative ease, we can be confident that his legal views respect mainstream American opinion. On the other hand, Gonzales infamously wrote the memo justifying torture of (innocent) detainees. He has also acted to shield the executive branch from scrutiny in general. Both of these stances represent a real danger to our democracy.

There would be a symbolic problem, of course, with putting a man with that record on the Supreme Court. But the real problem is very much a substantial one. It strikes me that the most important future cases on both the questions of rights and the question of the prerogatives of the government will arise from security concerns. We will not eliminate international terrorism during the course of his tenure, and we will never be able to be 100% sure that there is not a potential bomber hiding somewhere in, say, Missouri. That means there will always be pressure to restrict liberties and to expand the government's reach into the lives of its citizens; there will always be those who want to abandon the US Constitution. Gonzales should be expected in general to side with government power over individual rights and democratic transparency/accountability in this legal arena as well as others.

How should we respond, if he is nominated? It seems to me to be a question of weighing his generally reasonable approach to the law -- how much good would this do, relative to another potential judge who would take much more extreme and harmful positions? -- against the harm he would do if given the chance to infringe upon constitutional liberties in the context of the security debate. I do not know enough about Gonzales' positions on other isses to answer this question.

(I personally do not find abortion and affirmative action to be nearly as clear-cut as many progressives do. I do find his attitude towards mandatory sentencing disturbing and counter-productive in exactly that way that people who put rhetorical morality over practical solutions to real problems can be.)

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