John Ashcroft's stated reasons for sabotaging Ronnie White's chances
federal judgeship have proven to be as flimsy as a centrist coalition.
He told his U.S. Senate colleagues that White, a Missouri Supreme Court
judge, was "pro-criminal" and especially liberal on death penalty cases.
But White's record is no more pro-criminal than that of his peers, most
whom Ashcroft appointed when he was governor. At the time the Senate
rejected his nomination, in October 1999, White had affirmed death sentences
41 times and argued in favor of reversing them 17 times.
Ashcroft said law enforcement groups opposed White, based on White's
dissent on the court's affirmation of the death sentence for James Johnson,
who murdered a sheriff's wife and three law enforcement officers in 1991.
But one group opposed White only after Ashcroft invited it to do so.
group refused to go along with the hatchet job. Only one organization, prompted by
the sheriff whose wife was one of Johnson's victims, expressed unsolicited opposition.
So how is Ashcroft going to explain the Ronnie White matter when the U.S.
Senate holds hearings to confirm him as George W. Bush's attorney general?
His shaky arguments were enough to persuade his Republican Senate colleagues
to vote down a federal judgeship for White, Missouri's first
African-American state Supreme Court judge.
But they'll need some bolstering when Democrats, prompted by civil rights
and other groups, get their chance at Ashcroft during confirmation hearings.
The nominee could mention he's had a beef with White since the days
was governor and White was a representative in the Missouri House. White held a
committee chairmanship which enabled him to kill much of the anti-abortion legislation
which Ashcroft favored.
But women's groups are shaken enough by Ashcroft's abortion opposition.
not to throw fuel on that fire.
Besides, torpedoing a man's career chances because of old grudges doesn't
with President-elect Bush's declaration that he wants his attorney general to be "someone
who would have a commitment to fair and firm and impartial administration of justice."
Ashcroft might explain that, when the Senate voted on White's confirmation,
Ashcroft had a campaign to worry about.
He'd criticized the late Mel Carnahan, governor at the time, for commuting
a man's death
sentence at the request of Pope John Paul II. Carnahan was challenging Ashcroft for his Senate seat.
What better way to appear tough on crime than to denounce White, Carnahan's appointee,
as soft on crime, even if the record doesn't bear that out?
But Bush promised the nation his attorney general "will perform his
guided by principle, not by politics."
Probably it would be unwise to expound upon the politics behind the
railroading of White, elusive though the principle may be.
Patrick Leahy of Vermont, the top Democrat on the Senate Judiciary
Committee, has said of Ashcroft's prospects: "I intend to make sure that he
is given a far more fair hearing than some have been given in the past."
That would include, first and foremost, the hearing that Ashcroft and
Senate Republicans accorded Ronnie White.