When President Bush delivered his sixth State of the Union address Tuesday night missing from the Capitol was U.S. Attorney General Alberto Gonzales. Apparently, it was his turn to stay away from his fellow leaders just in case something catastrophic were to occur inside the chamber. And if that horrible something had come to pass, Alberto Gonzales would have been in charge of the country, at least temporarily, until the lines of succession could begin to flow again.
A scary thought, indeed, when you consider that Gonzales has achieved in just a few years what many legal scholars and court watchers had presumed impossible: he has made his predecessor, John Ashcroft, seem studious, grave and competent. Each week, it seems, our nation's top lawyer does or says something so unsettling, so inapt, so obviously unlawyerlike, that it leaves you wondering how he still is able to maintain his job even while so many others around him on Team Bush have dropped away.
Here is just one example. Last week, the Attorney General offered the Senate Judiciary Committee an interpretation of the Constitution that left lawyers and politicians around the country doing a collective "spit take." He told Sen. Arlen Spector (R-Pa.) that "the Constitution doesn't say that every individual in the United States or every citizen is hereby granted or assured the right of habeas" corpus. Habeas corpus is the right of individuals to rely upon the courts to challenge their detention or confinement at the hands of the government.
Sure, Gonzales said, the Constitution says that "habeas corpus shall not be suspended unless... in case of rebellion or invasion the public safety may require it" but that didn't mean to him, the nation's lawyer, that the Constitution expressly grants the right of habeas. Here is how one newpaper described Sen. Spector's reponse: "Specter was incredulous, asking how the Constitution could bar the suspension of a right that didn't exist...." "'You may be treading on your interdiction and violating common sense," the Senator told Gonzales.
Now, we all might be able to dismiss Gonzales' position as the ravings of a lawyer who is in over his head. But Gonzales has a habit of saying things that are on the minds and memo pads (and secret government directives) of the true movers and shakers within the administration, the legal minds responsible for the White House's policy toward the Guantanamo Bay detainees, extraordinary rendition, enemy combatants, domestic surveillance and all the other extraordinary legal tactics that have arisen since the Twin Towers fell. If the Constitution does not contain a right to habeas corpus, you see, then the Congress can manipulate (read: further narrow) the statutory right to habeas corpus any which way it or the White House wants. If Gonzales is goofy the proposition he posits is dangerous.
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