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John Ashcroft Hearing Continues

January 17, 2001 at 12:00 AM EDT


KWAME HOLMAN: John Ashcroft was back for a second day of questioning by members of the Senate Judiciary Committee, this time in the Russell Building’s historic Caucus Room. The committee’s temporary chairman Patrick Leahy cited some of the memorable Senate events that occurred in this room.

SEN. PATRICK LEAHY: The hearings into the sinking of the Titanic were held here. The Army/McCarthy hearings, a number of hearings of Supreme Court nominations.

SEN. ARLEN SPECTER: We haven’t been here since Justice Thomas and Judge Bork. This is a very famous room for major matters.

KWAME HOLMAN: And Pennsylvania Republican Arlen Specter went on to surmise the selection of the room was a commentary on the importance of this hearing. Indeed, John Ashcroft’s nomination to be Attorney General has proven to be the most contentious cabinet pick since Senator John Tower’s bid to become Defense Secretary ultimately was rejected 12 years ago. Expecting a long day filled with tough questions, Ashcroft was offered a predictable one as the day began.

SEN. ARLEN SPECTER: To the extent that you have any role in the selection of Supreme Court nominees, would you make a commitment not to employ a litmus test on the pro- choice/pro-life distinction?

JOHN ASHCROFT: I have not had a substantial discussion with the President-elect of the United States about my role in terms of judicial selection. I know the Constitution allocates clearly the appointment authority to the President. I know that he has indicated that he would not have a litmus test. And I believe that, in my service to him, it would be important that I reflect that clear indication of his that no litmus test would exist.

KWAME HOLMAN: The tougher questions came from committee Democrats.

SEN. DIANNE FEINSTEIN: Senator Ashcroft, I must tell you I am deeply puzzled by what I heard yesterday and what I hear today. I am one that believes that in political life, of which you have been part for 25 years, it’s very hard to change your stripes or change your spots. And I see a kind of metamorphosis going on, a mutation if you will, that somebody that has been really on the far right of many of the issues about which Senators have spoken today, or yesterday– civil rights, a woman’s right to choice, certainly guns– is now making a change. And, quite frankly, I don’t know what to believe.

KWAME HOLMAN: California’s Dianne Feinstein tried to pin down Ashcroft on two of the issues most often raised by Ashcroft’s critics: Guns and abortion.

SEN. DIANNE FEINSTEIN: Each year more than 32,000 women become pregnant as a result of rape, and approximately 50% of these end in abortion. Given the circumstances surrounding any rape, and certainly a resulting pregnancy, can you tell us why you feel there is no need for a rape exception to a ban on abortion?

JOHN ASHCROFT: Thank you for your question. I understand these are deeply held views of yours, and my opposition to the aborting of unborn children has been a deeply held position of mine. I think it is also fair to say that I know the difference between an enactment role and an enforcement role. My involvement in legislation has, very frankly, in recognition of the law, centered in… in real terms on trying to do things like get parental consent and other things like that. Those are the kinds of things, which I have focused on, the ban on partial-birth abortion. But I will enforce the law, fairly and aggressively, firmly. I know the difference between the debate over enacting the law and the responsibility of enforcing the law, and that’s been clear in my record as a public servant.

SEN. DIANNE FEINSTEIN: Will you maintain the Department of Justice’s task force on violence against health care providers, and give it the resources it needs to continue?

JOHN ASHCROFT: I will… The task… There have been, I think, three different task forces in this respect. I will maintain such task forces and provide them with the kind of resources that they need in order to make sure that we don’t impair the constitutional right of women to access reproductive health services.

SEN. DIANNE FEINSTEIN: Will you, 100%, investigate and prosecute activities that block the entrances to facilities where abortions are performed, even if the conduct is nonviolent?

JOHN ASHCROFT: If the conduct of anyone violates the law regarding the access of women to reproductive health services, I will enforce the law vigorously. I will investigate the alleged violations thoroughly. I will direct U.S. Attorneys to devote resources to that on a priority basis.

KWAME HOLMAN: Feinstein then turned to the gun issue.

SEN. DIANNE FEINSTEIN: If you become Attorney General, will you maintain the Justice Department position in support of the assault weapons ban?


SEN. DIANNE FEINSTEIN: Will you support its reauthorization when it’s sunsets in 2004?

JOHN ASHCROFT: It is my understanding that the President-elect of the United States has indicated his clear support for extending the assault weapon ban, and I would be pleased to move forward with that position, and to support that as a policy of this President, and as a policy of the Justice Department.

KWAME HOLMAN: It was Illinois Democrat Richard Durbin who raised the issue of Ronnie White. He is the Missouri Supreme Court Justice, an African-American, whose nomination to a federal court was rejected by Senate Republicans in 1999. John Ashcroft led the fight against Ronnie White.

SEN. RICHARD DURBIN: I’m troubled. I’m troubled by what I think is a mischaracterization of Ronnie White’s background, his temperament, his judicial training, his experience on the bench. When you spoke against Ronnie White on the floor of the United States Senate, you suggested that had he was pro-criminal. Well, I might suggest to you that the facts tell us otherwise. In 59 death penalty appeals, which Judge White reviewed while on the Missouri Supreme Court, he voted to uphold the death sentence in 41 cases, 70% of the time. The record also reflects that Judge White voted with the majority 53 times, 90% on the death cases before the Missouri Supreme Court. His decisions were affirmed 70% of the time, significantly better record than his predecessor who was affirmed 55% of the time, a gentleman whom you appointed to the Missouri Supreme Court. I find it interesting that this man, who was so important in the history of Missouri, had such an extraordinary background as an attorney, legislator, and a jurist, somehow became the focus of your attention and your decision to defeat him. Senator Ashcroft, did you treat Ronnie White fairly?

JOHN ASHCROFT: Senator Durbin, I believe that I acted properly in carrying out my duties as a member of the committee and as a member of the Senate in relation to Judge Ronnie White. Not a single Republican voted for Judge White because of a substantial number of law enforcement organizations that opposed his nomination.


JOHN ASHCROFT: Well, I know that the National Sheriff’s Association did.

SEN. RICHARD DURBIN: The Missouri Federation is one group. And they represent, I think, 70 municipalities. The larger group, Missouri Chiefs of Police, including the cities of St. Louis and Kansas City, refused to accept your invitation to oppose him.

JOHN ASHCROFT: As it relates to my own objections, I had a particular concern with his dissents in death penalty cases. Judge White has voted to give clearly guilty murderers a new trial by repeatedly ordering lower standards for proving various legal errors.

SEN. RICHARD DURBIN: In which specific cases?

JOHN ASHCROFT: Well, let me begin to address a case.

KWAME HOLMAN: Ashcroft detailed the case of James Johnson, who was convicted of killing the wife of a sheriff and three law enforcement officers.

JOHN ASHCROFT: And the defendant in the case had pleaded– not had pled, but had confessed completely to the crime in a statement that alleged no difficulties or no problems. So that when the case finally was litigated, it was clear that there was no question about whether or not he conducted himself in a way which was somehow excusable.

SEN. RICHARD DURBIN: Senator, didn’t the dissent from Judge White come down to the question of the competency of his counsel? And didn’t Judge White say expressly in the decision that if he is guilty, than frankly he should face the death penalty? There was no question about it. The man was clearly lacking in skill in preparing the defense, and that is the only point made by Judge White?

JOHN ASHCROFT: Well, I think that being the only point, it’s an inadequate point to overturn a guilty murder.

SEN. RICHARD DURBIN: So the competency of counsel in a death penalty case you don’t believe is grounds for overturning?

JOHN ASHCROFT: It’s part of the necessary grounds, Senator, but I believe mere incompetence of counsel without showing any evidence against the defendant does not mean that case should be overturned.

KWAME HOLMAN: But Delaware Democrat Joseph Biden then drew a comparison between Ronnie White’s decision and a decision by now-Supreme Court Justice Antonin Scalia.

SEN. JOSEPH BIDEN: I mean, Scalia said the same things your old buddy did — to illustrate the point, he voted on a case to overturn the death penalty that had been imposed on a disgruntled ex-employee of a married couple; the defendant entered the couple’s home, shot the wife twice with a shotgun, and then shot and killed the husband, then when he realized the wife was still alive, he slit her throat and stabbed her twice with a hunting knife. In the second case, he wrote an opinion reversing the death penalty that he had imposed on a defendant who had raped and strangled a 13-year-old girl. Should Scalia not be on that court? What people are looking for is balance. So I would have less trouble with Ronnie White if you had gone to the floor when this decision was made and say, you know, I’m really disappointed in Scalia; he was one of my heroes. I just want you to understand why people are suspect. People are suspect not because they believe, at least to the best of my knowledge, because they believe you are a racist; they don’t believe that. I don’t believe that.

JOHN ASHCROFT: I will enforce the law. I reject racism. I will reach out to people, all people, and enforce all of the law, and I respect this panel’s and this committee’s dedication. And I don’t have an argument.

KWAME HOLMAN: As the Ashcroft hearings continue, Ronnie White is scheduled to appear tomorrow.