With students passing awayformer U.S. Attorney General Alberto Gonzales, now dean of Belmont University College of Law, still understands what life in the spotlight requires.
In an exclusive interview with Baptist New Global, the nation’s first Hispanic attorney general speaks with ease to explain some of the toughest cases of the day, including the legal issues facing former US President Donald Trump.
Gonzales, who was appointed attorney general by former President George W. Bush, even answers this contentious question with a fact-based approach, as if he were teaching a seminar on law and current affairs.
“The Ministry of Justice became aware through a series of sources that the former president was engaged in some kind of conduct that (allegedly) constituted a federal crime. There is a lot of discretion in the minds of prosecutors. But if they believe there might be something there, then they investigate,” he explained. “And that means collecting information; usually it starts with discussions, phone calls to gather information.
“As things progress, you go to the subpoena stage if you don’t get any cooperation. But you really have a pretty good idea that a crime may have been committed. Then, you do a search, which is the most intrusive, is what happened in the Florida estate of former President Trump.
“At this point, prosecutors have yet to decide whether or not to indict the former president. They have a pretty good idea (that) possible criminal laws have been violated. But once they get all that information, they make the decision to indict, which goes through the process of convening a grand jury. We are now at the information gathering stage.
Then he gives the context based on his own experience.
“I only signed off on one search warrant, and that search involved the search of a congressman’s office on Capitol Hill.”
“It is extremely rare for the Attorney General to be personally involved in a search decision. There are searches happening every day all over the country,” he said. “It goes to the U.S. Attorney, the Criminal Division of the individual office, maybe even the Deputy Attorney General for Major Cases. But for the Attorney General to be involved in signing a search; In the roughly three years that I was Attorney General, I only signed off on one search warrant, and that search involved the raiding of a congressman’s office on Capitol Hill.
It involved Representative William Jefferson, a Louisiana Democrat under investigation for corruption.
“It was a big deal because in the history of our country the FBI had never conducted [a] research on Capitol Hill,” Gonzales said. “We have had many discussions about this. I asked questions like: What other evidence do we have? Why do we have to do this? Why do we have to do this now? What efforts have we made to obtain this information by other means? These are the kinds of questions that an Attorney General asks and those that I have asked.
In 2009, Jefferson was convicted on 11 of 16 bribery charges. He was sentenced to 13 years in prison, the longest sentence ever given to a representative for bribery or other charges.
But to arrive at this conviction was a challenge for Gonzales.
“After the search was done, I got a call from the chief of staff saying that the President of the United States wanted to talk to me about the search because the Speaker of the House at the time was furious. That’s a big problem for the Attorney General to approve a search.The report is that Merrick Garland took a while to make this decision, which he should have done.
Despite moments of anxiety like signing that search warrant, it’s clear that Gonzales enjoyed his service and he fondly remembers those days.
“God puts us on this earth to make a difference, to serve.”
“God places us on this earth to make a difference, to serve, whether as White House counsel or United States Attorney General,” he explained. “It was a great privilege and a huge responsibility. That’s why I went to law school – to make a difference.
However, he does not miss everything in this role. “I don’t miss dealing with the press, I don’t miss going to the Capitol to defend my decisions, even when I know I’m right. I don’t miss all of this, but I would do it again in a second. My wife wouldn’t let me do it again.
Now in his role as dean of Belmont Law School, a historically Baptist school in Nashville, Tennessee, Gonzales brings a service record that informs his view of current events on many topics.
Regarding the recent announcement that the Southern Baptist Convention is under investigation by the Justice Department for sexual abuse cases, Gonzales admits he doesn’t know much.
“I know little beyond what may have been reported in the press. What may have led to this investigation was that authorities obtained information that there was some sort of wrongdoing.
And like the Trump case, Gonzales thinks that investigation will have to go ahead. There are still too many unknowns.
But when it comes to controversial Supreme Court decision that rejected the federal abortion right mandated in 1973 in Roe vs. Wadehe is more decisive: he thinks that the court understood this one well.
“There is no constitutional right to abortion now. But then you have to turn to the states. Of course, this then raised questions about travel and people needing to get out of state. Legally, it’s really now in the hands of the people, with their state legislatures acting on behalf of their constituents, (that is) where it should have started in the first place. There is no right to abortion in our Constitution.
Yet he also realizes the politics of the situation.
“I know this decision has damaged the reputation of the court in certain segments of America.”
“I know this decision hurt the reputation of the court in certain segments of America,” he said. “There is a fundamental change in the composition of the court, and that is never a good thing. So I think the court took a hit, which is very unfortunate. However, I think the court did not have to weigh in on this in the first place, simply because the right to abortion does not exist in the US Constitution.
These are the kinds of lessons he thinks the next generation of lawyers and jurists need to understand – which is why he is now in academia.
“I don’t have the opportunity to teach a lot because of all the administrative responsibilities I have. I’m just teaching a class this semester. But what I love about law school is that I feel like, hopefully, we’re grooming the next generation of leaders.
“Lawyers are the champions of those in need, of those who are poor,” he said. “Despite all the jokes from the lawyers, when someone’s in trouble, they’ll call [a] lawyer.”
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