Gonzales Lays Out His Priorities at Justice Dept.


New York Times

March 1, 2005

WASHINGTON, Feb. 28 - Laying out his law enforcement priorities for the first time since taking office, Attorney General Alberto R. Gonzales urged Congress on Monday to speed the process for deporting illegal immigrants, end the impasse over judicial nominees and extend federal antiterrorism powers under the USA Patriot Act.

Mr. Gonzales also said he expected the Justice Department to look for more aggressive ways to prosecute obscenity crimes, and he announced the creation of five federal-local task forces nationwide in an effort to curtail violent crime.

The wide-ranging priorities, spelled out by Mr. Gonzales in a speech before the Hoover Institution, a public policy research center, were largely a continuation of the policies of his predecessor, John Ashcroft, particularly in the emphasis on aggressive counterterrorism measures.

The Senate confirmed Mr. Gonzales on Feb. 3 by a vote of 60 to 36. The vote was closer than many had expected and came after Democrats mounted an attack on Mr. Gonzales's role at the White House in developing policies on the treatment of prisoners in the campaign on terror.

Three weeks into his new job as attorney general, Mr. Gonzales said Monday that he had to make "a few adjustments" in moving from President Bush's White House counsel to the official in charge of 110,000 employees at the Justice Department. A former enlisted man in the Air Force, Mr. Gonzales said one of the more unsettling changes was having employees call him by the title of "general," as they did with Mr. Ashcroft. (He prefers "Judge Gonzales," a nod to his days on the Texas Supreme Court.)

While Mr. Gonzales's confirmation as the first Hispanic attorney general buoyed many Hispanics, he showed no sign in his remarks on Monday of backing away from the Bush administration's efforts to speed deportation proceedings for illegal immigrants. Under Mr. Ashcroft, the Justice Department sought to streamline the process for immigration judges to hear appeals in deportation and asylum cases, and Mr. Gonzales said the system was in need of further repair.

He said that the Justice Department and federal courts were "straining under the weight of an immigration litigation system that is broken" and that illegal immigrants facing criminal charges were receiving too many chances to appeal their fates. He urged Congress to move quickly on proposals that would expedite the process.

But Senator Patrick J. Leahy of Vermont, the ranking Democrat on the Judiciary Committee, suggested that Mr. Gonzales was misdirecting blame for the immigration backlog.

"If the attorney general wants to reduce the immigration workload of our federal courts," Mr. Leahy said, "he should restore the fair appeals process within the Justice Department that his predecessor diminished through his misguided restructuring of the Board of Immigration Appeals. That, and not depriving legal permanent residents of their due process rights, should be the solution."

Mr. Gonzales also said he wanted to work with Congress to find ways of breaking the logjam over some of the administration's judicial nominees. Mr. Bush has resubmitted the names of about a dozen federal judges whose nominations were previously blocked or slowed by Democrats.

Some Republicans in the Senate are seeking to change the Senate rules to prevent Democrats from blocking a judicial appointment through a filibuster. During his confirmation hearing, Mr. Gonzales refused to wade into that procedural issue when Democrats pressed him on whether he thought such a tactic was proper, but he made clear Monday that he thought the Senate should vote on all nominees.

"It is true that many of the president's nominees have received up-or-down votes and have been confirmed," Mr. Gonzales said. "But under our system, every nominee is entitled to an up-or-down vote."

The Justice Department's top priority, he added, remains fighting terrorism, and he affirmed the Bush administration's insistence in recent months that Congress move quickly to extend antiterrorism powers in the Patriot Act.