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Last Tuesday, John Ashcroft made his single largest contribution to American civil liberties since entering office as Attorney General: He resigned. During Ashcroft’s term, America has seen constitutional right after constitutional right side-stepped, ignored or attacked in the name of executive expediency, and for those of us who take pride in America being “the land of the free,” his resignation could not have come too soon.
Ashcroft, whose policies run the gamut from the bad to the unforgivable, brought a degree of partisanship to his post, extreme even by the standards of the Bush administration. From his efforts to fight an Oregon law allowing doctors to participate in assisted suicide to his battle against the legalization of marijuana for medical purposes in California; from his work to prevent Ohio voters from being able to file provisional ballots should they not go to the right polling place to his help in denying federal payment to non-biological family members of bisexual, gay, and lesbian victims of Sept. 11, John Ashcroft has been one of Washington’s most polarizing personalities.
His record on civil rights is, unsurprisingly, abysmal. He denied racial bias in the implementation of the death penalty and condoned the sentencing disparity between cases involving crack and powder cocaine. Even the conservative talk show host Bill O’Reilly criticized Ashcroft’s opposition to the voluntary desegregation of a low-income school district when Ashcroft was in the Senate.
But far and away his most lasting legacy will be the damage he has done to civil liberties in the name of Sept. 11. After hurrying the PATRIOT Act through congress, he has been a tireless advocate for allowing the executive and judicial branches to ignore the Bill of Rights. He has worked to close immigration hearings in order to keep due process from getting in the way of justice (read: arbitrary imprisonment of men of Middle Eastern descent). To that end, he has not only used every pretext possible to detain people without burdening the judiciary with the added task of charging these people with a crime, but he also created military tribunals in the event that the court system might make the mistake of respecting the rights of the defendant.
Finally, in the spirit of free discourse and in typical Ashcroft style, the outgoing attorney general suggested that criticizing his policies would be helping terrorists.
Ashcroft, if nothing else, served as an almost flawless example of what an attorney general should not be. We hope that the incoming attorney general, Alberto Gonzales learns from the mistakes of his predecessor.
Unfortunately, however, there is reason to be apprehensive about Gonzales’ appointment. Among other concerns is Gonzales’ criticism of the Geneva Conventions. Indeed, he was one of the signatories of the infamous letter outlining how the administration could “legally” torture certain prisoners of war. Complete with a promise to “work hard to build upon [Ashcroft’s] record,” the outlook is less than ideal.
Nevertheless, we retain hope that the inauguration of Gonzales will mark a shift in the Department of Justice’s attitude toward civil liberties. Gonzales’ record as Texas Supreme Court justice suggests that he will be more moderate than Ashcroft. Given the alternative as attorney general, Gonzales is sure to shine.
In his departing letter, Ashcroft wrote that “the Department of Justice would be well served by new leadership.” We wholeheartedly agree.
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