Gonzales & The White House: The Plot Thickens

Lawyer Andrew Cohen analyzes legal affairs for CBS News and CBSNews.com.
Are you surprised by today's front-page news that the White House was "deeply involved" in the firing of federal prosecutors and that Attorney General Alberto R. Gonzales appears to have obediently complied with a request by the President to get rid of U.S. Attorneys who had come under criticism from Republican politicians? You shouldn't be.

This sorry episode is just the latest in a long string of developments wherein the Justice Department, under Gonzales' leadership, is unwilling or unable to exercise any sort of independence from the White House. This morning I spoke with Stanley Kutler, an eminent legal historian at the University of Wisconsin at Madison. He told me that today's news "typifies" a long-running problem that has tainted many an attorney general during the course of the nation's history. When an attorney general is politically or personally beholden to a President, Kutler told me, and when the Justice Department is run from out of the White House, you've got trouble.

We've indeed got trouble. Few attorneys general in recent history have been more beholden to their President than Gonzales is to President George W. Bush. In fact, two years ago, when asked by the Academy of Achievement to list his role models, Gonzales listed his mother, his father, and the President as the three people to whom he owed the most. This would be more charming if the Attorney General had during the past two years stood up to his hero-- on domestic surveillance, on Guantanamo Bay, on protecting good federal prosecutors—instead of simply defending or justifying White House policies and practices.

White hot heat is on Gonzales-- and rightfully so. And the fact that his chief of staff, Kyle Sampson, may have fallen on his sword and resigned should not deflect those flames from the Attorney General. The job requires him both to be a member of the President's cabinet and to serve as the nation's top lawyer—to implement administration policies but also offer first allegiance to the Constitution and the rule of law. He has by all accounts done a great job with half of that job description—he's been one of the most loyal members of the current administration. But it is long past time he showed any propensity for fulfilling the other half of his duties.

Let me leave it to another grand legal historian, Stanley Katz, of Princeton University, to sum it up where we are, or ought to be, on all of this. Professor Katz told me this morning: "It is not fair to say that we all are agreed upon what the ideal Attorney General should be. But it is fair to say that Gonzales falls short of any ideal I can think of." This from a guy who can name attorneys general in American history like the rest of us can name members of our family.