Our View: Replacing Gonzales, Bush must select a person of independence and integrity

The attorney general of the United States has a unique role in our government. He or she protects the rule of law -- that is, the attorney general's prime duty is to protect the rights of Americans, not the president.

That has been forgotten under Attorney General Alberto Gonzales. During his watch, the Justice Department has been tarnished by his putting political priorities above the rule of law.

Gonzales has given in to the inevitable and resigned, effective Sept. 17. He will leave a terrible legacy. He has worked to expand presidential powers, undermining our system of checks and balances. He has advocated surveillance without warrants. Perhaps most egregious, he has countenanced the manipulation of U.S. elections. It will take a nonpolitical, independent replacement to begin to bring new shine to this badly tarnished department.

As President Bush said Monday in describing Gonzales as attorney general and before that as White House counsel, Gonzales "played a critical role" in shaping Bush administration policies in battling terrorism; laws such as the Patriot Act "bear his imprint." That should be seen as a negative legacy, not positive.

Gonzales was an architect and chief defender of programs to eavesdrop on the international phone calls and e-mail messages of Americans and others inside the United States without court-approved warrants. He argued that the president has "inherent authority" to conduct warrantless electronic surveillance. Time after time, Gonzales went out of his way to advocate a view of executive power so expansive as to allow the president to ignore laws passed by Congress.

But all that is in the past. The question now is who should replace him.

Bush should look to what President Ford did to restore trust in the overly politicized Justice Department of the 1970s. Ford sought someone nonpolitical. "The situation demanded someone of towering intellect and spotless integrity," he recalled in 2000. So Ford chose Edward Levi, a distinguished legal scholar, longtime dean of the University of Chicago Law School and president of that university.

In replacing Gonzales, Bush should reach beyond personal loyalty and seek someone who can restore trust in the Department of Justice. That is no job for a crony or a partisan toady.