Choice of Gonzales May Blaze a Trail for the High Court

By ELISABETH BUMILLER and NEIL A. LEWIS

New York Times

November 12, 2004

WASHINGTON, Nov. 11 - Republicans close to the White House said on Thursday that the choice of Alberto R. Gonzales as attorney general was part of a political strategy to bolster Mr. Gonzales's credentials with conservatives and position him for a possible Supreme Court appointment.

These Republicans said Mr. Gonzales had been widely viewed as one of President Bush's top choices for the court. But by first sending him to the Justice Department, they said, Mr. Bush could then nominate a conservative favored by his political base to fill the first vacancy that arises.

For Mr. Gonzales, tenure as attorney general would allow him to demonstrate his reliability to conservative leaders, many of whom say they are unsure of his views on issues like abortion and affirmative action, Republicans said. One Republican said Mr. Gonzales's nomination hearings in Congress would also "get out of the way'' the debate over legal memorandums that Mr. Gonzales supervised as White House counsel. Civil rights groups say memorandums about the treatment of captured terrorism suspects appeared to endorse the torture of some prisoners and opened the door to abuses at the Abu Ghraib prison in Iraq.

The strategy, which Republicans said was in large part the work of Karl Rove, the president's chief political adviser, would clear the way for Mr. Bush to make his first nomination to the Supreme Court a trusted conservative, thus showing gratitude to his political base for the large role they played in giving him a second term.

"It's a thank you to the right for the election,'' said one Republican adviser to the White House. "And they think they need to strike now in the post-election glow.''

The theory, the Republican said, is that Mr. Bush will be at the apex of his power at the beginning of the second term, and in a strong position to battle Democrats in any Supreme Court confirmation fight. "So you do the toughest nominee first,'' the Republican said.

Presidents over the years have parked future candidates for the Supreme Court in other positions in order to bolster their résumés and improve their chances. Most often, however, potential nominees are first parked on federal appeals courts, the level just below the Supreme Court, not as attorneys general.

Friends of Mr. Gonzales also say that if he is not put up later for the Supreme Court, the Justice Department is hardly a consolation prize, given that he has long desired to become the nation's first Hispanic attorney general. Even so, the post has also proved to be a perilous one and has at times harmed careers, as in the case of Janet Reno's difficult experiences with the Branch Davidian conflagration in Waco, Tex., and her return of a young boy in Florida, Elián González, to relatives in Cuba.

Mr. Gonzales's appointment, Republicans said, reflected Mr. Bush's speed in moving to announce major personnel changes for his second term. They said the president's goal was to have all new appointments in place before Thanksgiving so that he can move quickly on his agenda after the inauguration in January.

For now, however, some of the most prominent members of the administration are remaining in place. Republicans outside the administration as well as White House officials said Condoleezza Rice, the national security adviser, would stay in her job, at least for now, although she is widely said to be interested in succeeding Donald H. Rumsfeld as defense secretary. But Mr. Rumsfeld, Republicans said, wants to stay for the immediate future, if only to put the Abu Ghraib prison scandal well behind him.

There is also a consensus emerging in Republican and diplomatic circles that Secretary of State Colin L. Powell will stay on into 2005 because of the international crises coming to a head - the difficulty of holding Iraqi elections scheduled for late January, impending showdowns with Iran and North Korea over their nuclear programs and negotiations in the Middle East after the death of Yasir Arafat. The United States may be more involved in working toward a settlement between the Israelis and Palestinians after Mr. Arafat's death, and Mr. Powell is thought to be eager to put his mark on the dealings, Republicans said.

If and when Mr. Powell does step down, Ms. Rice is being mentioned as a possible successor to him as well. If Ms. Rice does move to the State Department, her deputy, Stephen J. Hadley, is a leading candidate to become national security adviser.

Mr. Gonzales's impending move to the Justice Department means that he is no longer the front-runner for the first vacancy on the Supreme Court, which may become open because of the illness of Chief Justice William H. Rehnquist, 80, who has thyroid cancer. There has been no indication by the chief justice's office of when, or whether, he will return to the bench.

Conservatives said on Thursday that a leading candidate for the first nomination to the Supreme Court was Judge J. Harvie Wilkinson III, who sits on the federal appeals court in Richmond. He was a protégé of the late Justice Lewis F. Powell, who was widely admired. Although Judge Wilkinson is opposed to abortion, he may be palatable to some Democrats because of his strong environmental and First Amendment record.

Another leading candidate is Judge J. Michael Luttig, 50, who sits on the same court as Judge Wilkinson. Judge Luttig's relative youth would also make him attractive to Republicans, who tend to prefer younger candidates who will have longer careers and thus more influence.

Other possible nominees include Judge Edith H. Jones, a federal appeals court judge, and Larry D. Thompson, a former deputy attorney general who is now the general counsel of Pepsico in Purchase, N.Y.

Several Republicans said no decision had been made on filling Mr. Gonzales's position as White House counsel, although Brett M. Kavanaugh, a former associate counsel who has since been promoted to staff secretary to the president, is a strong candidate. Two officials said Mr. Kavanaugh had won Mr. Bush's confidence. "The president thinks he's great,'' said one Republican familiar with the White House operations. "He trusts him and really likes having him around to rely on.''

If chosen as White House counsel, Mr. Kavanaugh would not have to undergo a Senate confirmation. Earlier this year, he was nominated for a seat on the federal appeals court based in Washington and was batted around by Democrats in a confirmation hearing. Mr. Kavanaugh was criticized by Democrats for playing a principal role in the White House effort to nominate prominent conservatives to the nation's appeals courts and for his role in the Whitewater investigation of President Bill Clinton.

Other candidates include David Leach, the deputy White House counsel, and Harriet Miers, the deputy chief of staff.