Facing the prospect of increasingly aggressive congressional inquiries into his politicization of the Department of Justice, as well as an energetic House push for his impeachment, Attorney General Alberto Gonzales has resigned.

Gonzales, the former White House counsel who made it clear during his two-and-a-half-year tenure as the nation’s top cop that he served President Bush rather than the Constitution, announced his exit strategy just days before Congress returns from  a break during which senators and representatives received an earful about the need to get rid of him.

As White House counsel, Gonzales blocked requests from the General Accounting Office for information about Enron officials meeting with Vice President Dick Cheney’s Energy Task Force. He refused requests from congressional committees for information that Congress had a right and a need to be provided. He made the legal case for torture, despite the fact that the Constitution bars cruel and unusual punishment. He outlined schemes for subverting the judicial system and its rules by making terror suspects eligible for military tribunals. He helped convince Bush to refuse to afford prisoners held at Guantánamo the basic protections afforded prisoners-of-war under treaties the US had accepted.

As the nation’s 80th Attorney General, Gonzales extended his representation of Bush into the Justice Department, which—of course—should be an independent federal agency. He defended the president’s authorization of illegal warrantless wiretapping. He accepted the “extraordinary rendition” of suspects from US custody to countries with regimes that torture. And he turned the Department of Justice into an extension of Karl Rove’s political shop.

Revelations about the firing of eight US Attorneys who were seen by the administration as insufficiently political in their investigations and prosecutions opened up an investigation that has begun to confirm a broad scheme to politicize the Justice Department’s work in the area of voting rights—a scheme apparently designed by Rove to suppress turnout by minorities and others who tend to vote Democratic.

The investigation has hit the administration hard—so hard that the president is now jettisoning his closest aides to prevent the inquiry from evolving into a serious examination of his own lawlessness. Gonzales’ exit comes just days after Rove announced his.

The thing now is to make sure that the administration does not succeed in using departures to shut down—or at least, suck the life out of—ongoing Congressional investigations.

When Rove announced he was leaving, Senate Judiciary Committee chair Patrick Leahy, D-Vermont, made it clear that the political aide remained a target of inquiries by the judiciary committees of the House and Senate.

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“Mr. Rove acted as if he was above the law,” Leahy said at the time. “Now that he is leaving the White House while under subpoena, I continue to ask what Mr. Rove and others at the White House are so desperate to hide.”

The answer is that, just as Gonzales and Rove served Bush rather than the Constitution, they now seek with their resignations to protect Bush—and Cheney—from the investigations that are necessary to any serious effort to restore the primacy of the founding document in the affairs of the nation.

Only a continued investigation of the lawlessness of the soon-to-be-former Attorney General will achieve what is the essential purpose of this Congress: the restoring of the rule of law to a country deeply damaged by petty little men who chose personal loyalties and political expediency over their duty to the Republic.  

JOHN NICHOLS IS THE WASHINGTON CORRESPONDENT FOR THE NATION, WHERE THIS PIECE WAS FIRST PUBLISHED. 

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