In February 2007, while Alberto Gonzalez was serving as U.S. attorney general under President George W. Bush, he was told that he was going to be the “designated survivor.”
It was the night of Bush’s State of the Union address, a moment when basically every single person in line to be president if Bush died was on hand in the Capital to listen. Gonzalez’s role was to get on an airplane and simply fly around while the speech was being given just in case of disaster. If that happened, Gonzalez would assume the role of president.
“Every major department in the federal government had a representative there with a thick binder that explained all the protocols, classified procedures for them,” Gonzalez told a class of UTC students on Friday, Nov. 30. He said that, while watching the president give the State of the Union, “it suddenly hit me, ‘Oh my gosh, if something happened back at the Capitol, I would be President of the United States!’ ”
That was one of the thoughts that Gonzalez, who served from 2005 until 2007 under Republican President Bush, offered to students in the “Introduction to Judicial Process” class. Gonzalez is now dean of the College of Law at Nashville’s Belmont University.
The class is taught by Deardorff, head of the Department of Political Science and Public Service, who says that, along with Gonzalez, she has brought in judges, prosecuting and defense lawyers and others to speak to the students.
“I want to get them to move from description to analysis, to make sure they’re capable of doing that before we move them to the upper-division law classes,” she said. “The second thing we have to do is we want them to see how the theory connects to the reality.”
During his 50-minute talk, Gonzalez discussed such topics as the structure and role of the federal judiciary and the role of the president and Congress in the judicial nomination and confirmation process. He also discussed characteristics such as intelligence, courage, previous experience and discipline that he thinks are necessary attributes that judges, including justices of the U.S. Supreme Court, must have.
One topic raised by students was the recent confirmation hearing held for new Supreme Court Justice Brett Kavanaugh. Accusations that he sexually assaulted two women, one in prep school and one in college, raised during the hearing, allegations that directly tied into his character.
As attorney general, Gonzalez hired Kavanaugh to work as a lawyer on his team and said, “I have confidence in Brett.”
“Those of us who worked with Brett and know him as adult, all of us were shocked by the allegations. I’m not saying they didn’t happen; I don’t know,” Gonzalez said. “He is incredibly bright. And even though Brett is very conservative, he doesn’t wear it on his sleeve.”
He also was asked about the role of social media in changing the longstanding guidelines and procedures for how government operates. “I think the norms are really changing and I don’t think all those changes are to the good, honestly,” Gonzalez said. “I wouldn’t hazard a guess on how or which direction it’s going to change.
“I like to think that we still have certain expectations of qualifications and morals, of integrity, of the people who occupy our highest offices in this country. In the Oval Office is the most powerful person in the world. And I like to think that power, which can affect your life, your property, your liberty, is constrained by the rule of law, constrained by the Constitution. I want to know that person is not going to use that power … for personal or political gains. That’s not right.
“I can think of very few occupations where integrity matters more than the President of the United States. I’m surprised about some of the things this president says. I like a lot of the policies this president has done; I don’t like the way the president treats people.”
He is especially concerned by Trump’s recent calling out of the Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals for its ruling that his immigration policies were unconstitutional. Trump called the court “a disgrace” and “a complete and total disaster.”
A president can respectfully disagree with a court’s decision without making it personal or deliberately antagonistic, Gonzalez said.
“I think it’s OK to disagree; sometimes the courts get it wrong; that’s why we have courts of appeals; that’s why we have the U.S. Supreme Court,” Gonzalez said. “But to criticize, to challenge the judges being political or unqualified raises the possibility that all of us lose confidence in our judiciary. I think that’s a dangerous place to be.
“I hope the White House counsel is advising the president: ‘You know what? This isn’t any good for anybody.’ ”