Alberto Gonzales: The Worst Attorney General Ever?

So here’s my thought over coffee today: If Democrats follow through on their plans, then Alberto Gonzales will soon become the first US Attorney General in American history ever to face — and probably lose — a no confidence vote in Congress. But is he really the worst Attorney General ever?

The competition is fierce. To start with, two Attorneys General actually were indicted and stood trial from crimes committed in office. John Mitchell (1969-1972), who held post under President Richard M. Nixon, served 19 months of a four-year prison sentence after being convicted of conspiracy, obstruction of justice, and perjury for his role in the Watergate scandals. Five decades earlier, Harry Daugherty (1921-1924), who held the post under President Warren G. Harding, escaped prison only by the grace of two hung juries when he was prosecuted on fraud charges growing out of his part in the Teapot Dome Scandal of the 1920s.

But that’s not all. Even putting aside the criminals, you then come to the likes of A. Mitchell Palmer (1919-1921), who presided over the Great Red Scare after World War I. As his signature achievement, Palmer ordered a coast-to-coast round-up of 10,000 suspected leftists, primarily immigrants from Eastern Europe suspected of belonging to the then-recently-formed Communist Party. Almost all of them turned out to be utterly innocent — victims of guilt by association and bungled intelligence. In the process, Palmer’s Justice Department struck without search warrants or arrest warrants, kept suspects locked up for weeks or months with no access to lawyers or family members in overcrowded, makeshift prisons, and ultimately released them without ever charging them with a crime.

Congress considered impeaching Palmer, but its investigation descended into partisan finger pointing. Only Palmer’s young protege, J. Edgar Hoover, who as a 24 year-old staff lawyer in Palmer’s office actually managed the operation, managed to survive the backlash. Hoover, of course, then went on to lead the FBI for 48 years.

Finally, my choice to round out the bottom five would be Roger B. Taney (1831-1833) , who held the AG post briefly under President Andrew Jackson and helped Jackson engineer his controversial scuttling of the Bank of the United States. But Taney did his real damage to the country after Jackson promoted him to Chief Justice of the United States in 1836. Here, Taney gave us such gems as Dred Scott v. Sandford (1856) upholding the Fugitive Slave Law and bringing the nation to the brink of Civil War, and Prigg v. Pennsylvania (1842) justifying kidnapping and adduction if done for the sake for keeping slaves.

How does Alberto Gonzales stack up in this exciting race for the bottom? He’s never been indicted for a crime, and has not had the chance to twist the constitution on the Supreme Court. Still, Gonzales has a record on civil liberties that is striking by any standard: his opinions as White House counsel justifying torture, use of secret prisons, ignoring of the Geneva Conventions and of the FISA statute, and his recently-disclosed pressing of John Ashcroft in his hospital bedroom to sign off on even-more-extreme measures . Add to this his record as AG pressing for the suspension of habeas corpus — something even Mitchell Palmer in his wildest zeal never cosidered — and the politicization of the US attorney corps under his watch. It certainly makes him a contender, and he still has over a year left in office to beef it up his claim– so long as his friend in the White House doesn’t fire him and Congress doesn’t impeach him in the meantime.

So best of luck to all the entries. Please weigh in with your favorites.
Meanwhile, all the best. –KenA

2 thoughts on “Alberto Gonzales: The Worst Attorney General Ever?

  1. Certainly John Adams’ Attorney General, Charles Lee, merits consideration for having been on watch during passage of and prosecutions under the Alien and Sedition Acts.

  2. And let’s not forget Francis Biddle, who presided over arrests of “enemy aliens” after the attack on Pearl Harbor and eventually must have passed on Executive Order 9066 which resulted in the internment of over 120,000 American citizens of Japanese ancestry.

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